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The Moral Ill Effects of Teaching Economics

By on March 27, 2015

One 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% 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'”.

Other studies have found economics students to exhibit a stronger tendency towards anti-social positions compared to their peers. For example, Carter and Irons had both economics students and non-economics students play the “ultimatum” game–a two-player game where one player is given a sum of money to divide between the two. The other player is then given a chance to accept or reject the offer; if she accepts it, then each player receives the portion of money proposed by the offerer. If she declines, then neither player gets any money. Carter and Irons found that, relative to non-economics students, economics students were much more likely to offer their partners small sums, and, thus, deviate from a “fair” 50/50 spilt.

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Finally, researchers had both economics and non-economics students fill out two “honesty surveys”–one at the start of the semester and one at the conclusion–regarding how likely they were to either report being undercharged for a purchase or return found money to its owner. The authors found that, after taking an economics class, students’ responses to the end-of-the-semester survey were more likely to reflect a decline in honest behavior than students who studied astronomy.

Other studies supported these key findings. They found that economics students are less likely to consider a vendor who increases the price of bottled water on a hot day to be acting “unfairly.” Economics students who played a lottery game were willing to commit less of their potential winnings to fund a consolation prize for losers than were their peers. And such students were significantly more willing to accept bribes than other students. Moreover, economics students valued personal achievement and power more than their peers while attributing less importance to social justice and equality.

Although the entering economics students for both classes reported similar levels of dishonesty scores at the start of the class, by the end, those in the class with a focus on game theory reported significantly higher levels of dishonesty scores than their peers. Such results show that it is not just selection that is responsible for the reported increase in immoral attitudes.

Later studies support this conclusion. They found ideological differences between lower-level economics students and upper-level economics students that are similar in kind to the measured differences between the ideology of economics students as a whole and their peers. He finds that upper-level students are even less likely to support egalitarian solutions to distribution problems than lower-level students, suggesting that time spent studying economics does have an indoctrination effect.

The problem is not only that students are exposed to such views, but that there are no “balancing” courses taught in typical American colleges, in which a different view of economics is presented. Moreover, while practically all economic classes are taught in the “neoclassical” (libertarian, self centered) viewpoint, in classes by non-economists–e.g., in social philosophy, political science, and sociology–a thousand flowers bloom such that a great variety of approaches are advanced, thereby leaving students with a cacophony of conflicting pro-social views. What is needed is a systematic pro-social economics, that combines appreciation for the common good and for others as well as for the service of self.

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For details of the studies and additional references, see:
Amitai Etzioni. 2015. “The Moral Effects of Economic Teaching” Sociological Forum 30.1: 228-33.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University. His latest book, The New Normal: Finding a Balance between Individual Rights and the Common Good, was published by Transaction Publishers in 2014. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Send an email to: icps@gwu.edu to subscribe to his monthly newsletter.

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