Friday, May 2, 2008

Economics makes you selfish??

As Ray Fisman puts forward on Forbes: We are what we learn.

"Exposed to these (Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand's) compelling intellectual frameworks, which emphasize market efficiency and model human behavior as driven primarily by rational self-interest, do students become more selfish?

It is not easy to measure the effect of indoctrination (or, more euphemistically, "learning"). Students don't randomly decide to study, for example, economics rather than French literature. Perhaps the econ majors were efficiency fanatics to begin with.

Except, it turns out, at Yale Law School. All students are required to take courses in contracts and in torts, and they're randomly assigned to an instructor for each class. Some of these teachers have Ph.D.s in economics, some in philosophy and other humanities, and some have no strong disciplinary allegiances at all. Professors are encouraged to design their courses as they see fit. Instructors from economics may emphasize the role of contracts in making possible the efficiency gains of the marketplace, while philosophers may emphasize equal outcomes for contracting parties. So economists teach about efficiency and philosophers teach about equality.

To figure out whether this affected their young charges, we put 70 Yale Law students in a computer lab, and had them play a game that would reveal to us their views on fairness...It turns out that exposure to economics makes a big difference in how students split the pie, in terms of both efficiency and outright selfishness. Students assigned to classes taught by economists were more likely to give a lot when it was cheap to do so. But they were also much more likely to take the whole pie for themselves.

These findings hint at the influence that powerful ideas may have in shaping how we see the world, even late in life. It's also a sobering message for teachers such as myself. The students in my classroom will venture forth into the world of business and management, carrying with them some of the viewpoints and attitudes that I choose to emphasize in my lectures. Students learn much more than the facts; what we choose to communicate to them is a responsibility not to be taken lightly."

Hat tip to Mankiw.

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