How Learning Economics Makes You Antisocial

Amitai Etzioni in Evonomics:

ScreenHunter_1617 Jan. 13 18.09One of the first experiments to test the hypothesis that teaching economics is debasing people’s morality was conducted by Gerald Marwell and Ruth E. Ames. They designed a game where participants were given an allotment of tokens to divide between a private account and a public fund. If every player invested all of their tokens in the public fund, they would all end up with a greater return than if they had all put their money into their respective private accounts. However, if a player defected and invested in the private account while the other players invested in the public fund, she would gain an even larger return. In this way, the game was designed to promote free-riding: the socially optimal behavior would be to contribute to the public fund, but the personal advantage was in investing everything in the private fund (as long as the others did not catch on or make the same move).

Marwell and Ames found that most subjects divided their tokens nearly equally between the public and private accounts. Economics students, by contrast, invested only 20 percent of their tokens in the public fund, on average. This tendency was accompanied by a difference in the moral views of the economists and non-economists. Three quarters of non-economists reported that a “fair” investment of tokens would necessitate putting at least half of their tokens in the public fund. A third of economists didn’t answer the question or gave “complex, uncodable responses.” The remaining economics students were much more likely than their non-economist peers to say that “little or no contribution was ‘fair’.”

More here.