Friday, February 26, 2010

Selfish Economists

Just had a class with a group of economics students that I have been teaching. I have struggled all year to find examples of deviations from utility maximisation that really generate discussion. I have been using things like money ultimatum games but largely the students behave as many papers suggest economics students behave, namely that they offer low amounts in the ultimatum game and are far more likely, in my experience, to accept lower offers than when I give talks to psychology or lay audiences. Similarly, public goods games with prisoner dilemma structures that involve money have been generating mostly non-cooperation patterns.

However, when I framed the public goods problem as a grades example, whereby students could contribute to a common pool that improved the class grade or keep points to improve their own grade at the expense of the pool then far more people refused to deviate from the cooperative solution. In general, the idea of deviating from the money game generated no real discussion and it was difficult to use it as a launching pad to talk about indignation, neuroeconomics etc., However, the grades example did the trick nicely and generated far more discussion about why you shouldn't deviate from cooperating in such a game and why people who do so are violating a norm. This is, of course, anecdote but it has got me thinking about whether much of what we say about economics students being selfish comes from not looking closely enough at the social norms that operate among economics students. Economics students may not perceive deviating from money games as selfish as they are simply games with financial payoffs and dont involve their co-players being hurt in any meaningful way. However, when dealing with co-operation games where one has to violate a social sanction against hurting others to behave selfishly then economists may behave like anyone else.

Another thought is that I was simultaneously a psychology undergraduate and an economics undergraduate at one stage. When I think back to the small environment of my psychology class where I knew each of my classmates intimately from repeated interactions working on projects and so on, and compare that to my economics environment where I sat in a lecture theatre with 200 people I didn't know, it strikes me that this is not atypical of psychology and economics classes. Some of my economics students today complained that I was calling their behaviour selfish whereas they simply were acting in an environment where they did not know all the other people in the room. The psychology class that I taught last year mostly all knew one another and perhaps it is not so surprising that they cooperate more. I don't think this would explain all the differences between economics and psychology students but it should be born in mind.

All anecdote and happy to talk to people about testing this if anyone wants to collaborate.


Kevin Denny said...

As I think I pointed out before in another blog comment, I don't think professional economists are selfish at all. Many of them (I mean us) spent a lot of commenting on public policy in the media,blogs etc, participating on government committees etc (when asked). Generally this is for little or no reward, unless you enjoy dogs abuse. You might say those are ego trips or fiendish attempts to copper-fasten the neo-liberal orthodoxy (as those sad TASC types would have it) but I don't think it is in the main.
So, I for one, don't feel in the slightest bit guilty about my chosen profession.

Keith said...

Maybe economics students are simply less susceptible to envy-indignation effects than those of the softer (social) sciences; the share of the pie being offered is inversely related to the amount of maths in a student's course...

Camerer's book surveys some really interesting models of social preferences like inequality-aversion and 'ERC' games.

Marie said...

Could there also be an element of priming at play? I would expect that students who are spend their time thinking about how people maximising utility subject to income constraints, would more likely refer to that prime in decisions which involve sharing "money" (the subject of much of their lectures), than in a decisions which involve sharing "grades".

Michael Daly said...

I always thought economics students who don't cooperate in the ultimatum game are conforming to the social norm of economics classes or is this recursive?!?