Economics students and the selfish stereotype

Jessica Tang


May 21st, 2019

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most selfish of them all? Could it possibly be economics students? Jessica Tang investigates the roots of this popular stereotype.

I was sitting in a lecture hall the other week when my economics professor told the class that economics students were scientifically proven to be more selfish. As an economics student aspiring to work in the public service, this naturally didn’t sit well with me. Besides, doesn’t the entire discipline of economics rest upon achieving optimal outcomes for all of society? My scepticism led me to do something very typical of me – whipping out my phone and Googling the key words ‘economics’, ‘students’ and ‘selfish.’ And that’s how I found out that this was actually a thing – that economics students are notoriously perceived as being selfish, greedy and opportunistic.

A selfish discipline

It’s pretty common to come across running gags on the stereotypes of different disciplines – I’m sure most of you have read at least one Facebook post titled ‘What Your Degree Says About You.’ For economics students, it’s that we’re selfish. Even a New York Times article starts off with a rather telling statement: ‘The stereotypes about economists are well known: that we’re selfish Grinches; that we don’t read human interest stories because they don’t interest us; that the only reason we don’t sell our children is that we think they’ll be worth more later.’[1] And while these are just made for a good laugh, stereotypes do give an indication about how different groups are viewed. It’s been highly suggested that this stereotype came about because the concept of rationality is integral to the study of economics.[2][3] Perhaps this is the inevitable result of weighing up costs and benefits and solving profit maximisation problems for three years. Another popular reasoning is that economic students become more inclined to act in their self-interests not because they don’t care about others, but because studying economic theory drives scepticism and distrust.[4] This is especially evident in the case of game theory, which I will expand on later. 

Some number crunching

Let’s start off with some slightly concerning (but interesting) stats. One study found that economics students were more likely than their peers to label the word ‘greed’ as ‘generally good,’ ‘correct’ and ‘moral’ while another demonstrated that economics students were less likely to return money that was found than their peers.[4] [5] And in the United States, economics professors give considerably less to charity than professors of other disciplines.[6]

While these stats are a fun thought, most studies that investigate this stereotype look at the classic case of game theory. This is very important because there have been many suggestions that being taught game theory breeds uncooperative behaviour. Accordingly, such studies have deduced that economics students were not only more likely to exhibit selfish behaviour, they were also less trusting of their peers. One such study divided participants into groups of three and gave them a short chance to get to know one another before giving them the choice of defecting or cooperating with each group member. The payoff, which involved real money, would be determined based on a payoff matrix typical of the prisoner’s dilemma, where joint welfare would be maximised if both parties cooperated and minimised if both parties defected. If one participant cooperated while the other defected, the co-operator would receive nothing while the defector would receive a sum greater than they would under a cooperate-cooperate outcome. The results, shown on the graph below, demonstrated that economics students were much more likely to defect than their peers – 60.4 per cent of economics students’ choices were to defect compared to 38.8 per cent of students from other disciplines.[7]

Source: Frank et al

Other studies that have taken up new twists on game theory have reached similar results. One interesting example is an experiment where student participants were given money and told that they could keep the money or donate it to a common pool where it would be multiplied and divided equally amongst all participants. While the group of participants donated 49 per cent of their money on average, economics students donated a mere 20 per cent. The results critically suggest that economics students were most likely to freeride.[7]  

… a classic case of reverse causation?

Before we blame economics degrees for breeding ‘Grinches,’ it’s important to consider one very feasible explanation: that selfish people are simply more inclined to choose the discipline. This is obviously harder to explain, simply because many students from different backgrounds choose to study economics. And while it’s possible that students are drawn to economics for the money factor, the fact is that economics graduates work in an incredibly broad range of jobs with starkly different salary points. One article that critically assesses the validity of this claim refers to the Prisoner’s Dilemma experiment covered above, pointing out that because first-year economics students already showed greater signs of uncooperative behaviour, there must have been some self-selection bias involved.[6] Regardless of whether selfish people choose to study economics, other evidence supports the feasibility of economics degrees churning out self-interested graduates. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma mentioned above, the study broke down the responses according to year level and concluded that, on average, older students were more likely to cooperate. However, there was little improvement in the case of those studying economics.[8] Another prisoner’s dilemma experiment observed the responses of economics students from different year levels and found that those with more education were less likely to take a cooperative stance.[9] These results suggest that studying economics could very well affect one’s behaviour.

So, are economics students really selfish? It’s hard to say. There are, of course, a few other factors to consider: What really constitutes as selfish? Does self-interest really equate to selfishness? Do experiments really depict how people would act in the real-world? What is obvious, however, is that the selfish stereotype definitely didn’t come out of nowhere.

[1] Bauman, Y, 2011, ‘Economists are Grinches,’ The New York Times, Dec 16.

[2] Gerlach, P, 2017, ‘The games economists play: Why economics students behave more selfishly than other students,’ PloS one, vol. 12, no. 9, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0183814.

[3] Vedantum, S, 2017, ‘Does Studying Economics Make You Selfish?,’ National Public Radio, February 21.

[4] Wang, L, Malhotra, D, & J. Murnighan, J K, 2011, ‘Economics Education and Greed,’ Academy of Management Learning & Education, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 643-660.

[5] Stafford, T, 2013, ‘Does studying economics make you more selfish?,’ BBC, Oct 22.

[6] Frank, R H, Gilovich, T, Regan, D T, 1993, ‘Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?,’ The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 159-171.

[7] Marwell, G, & Ames, R E, 1981, ‘Economists free ride, does anyone else?: Experiments on the provision of public goods, IV,’ Journal of Public Economics, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 295-310.

[8] Lanteri, A, 2012, ‘Do Selfish People Self-Select in Economics?,’ Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-23.

[9] Isaac, R M, McCue, K F, & Plott, C R, 1985, ‘Public goods in an experimental environment,’ Journal of Public Economics, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 51-74.

Image: Christopher Dombres

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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