Are Economists Prone to Self-Interested Behaviour?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 4/18/2008 03:31:00 AM
There is a stream of academic research that delves into how economists may be more prone to self-interested behaviour than others. This sort of behaviour follows from the economic maxim of utility-maximizing behaviour: Before engaging in any activity, those thinking "economically" would, theoretically, consider matters in cost-benefit terms. Will the cost to me result in tangible benefits? In his work The Economic Approach to Human Behaviour, Nobel laureate Gary Becker sees economics not so much as a field of study but as an approach to human behaviour centred on utility maximization. Among other things, children are compared to consumer goods [!] Homo economicus, rational economic man, has had a profound influence on the social sciences despite the never-ending debate whether s/he provides an accurate representation of human behaviour. Unsurprisingly, lumping kids with refrigerators and trash compactors has a way of eliciting mixed reactions.

Political science types like myself sometimes resent incursions into the field by those wielding "rational choice" economic approaches to politics which depict those engaging in public service as only being in it for the money. Among countless criticisms of the economic approach is one I'm writing about here: There may be a reflexive tendency inherent in economic pedagogy. If you buy the core idea of economics that we're all but a bunch of self-interested utility maximizers, then you'll behave that way sooner or later. Frank, Gilovich, and Regan (1993) asked the question, "Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?" and found the answer to be in the affirmative. Among other things, they found economists were more than twice as likely as those working in other disciplines to give nothing to charity:

The article which I link to features similar results from other studies. This pattern suggests that economists may have internalized the conviction that they are but self-interested utility maximizers.

I bring this up for a natural experiment has just been conducted on the topic here at the Univerity of Birmingham. Recently, the British Higher Education Academy (HEA) solicited survey responses from postgraduate research students about the quality of their postgraduate learning experiences. I filled out the form sometime ago as I will soon be eligible to become a member of the HEA and thought nothing more about it until I received an e-mail message about the survey. Apparently, the University was rather unhappy with the response rates from the survey and asked the various departments to improve the tally. (Only 15.9% of all postgraduate research students at Birmingham replied.)

As with the Frank et al. (1993) study, the results are instructive as they demonstrate the same phenomenon of homo economicus at play. Here is a brief rundown of the response rates from some of the departments along with some speculative commentary about why the response rates were such. You can view the entire file as well:

European Research Institute: 13/49 or 26.5% - Europeans are still quite civic-minded.
Electrical Engineering: 28/114 or 24.6% - I haven't the slightest clue what to say about this.
Chemical Engineering: 31/140 or 22.1% - Ditto.
Political Science: 11/61 or 18.0% - We lament declining voter turnout, but we're pretty apathetic ourselves.
Sociology: 4/42 or 9.5% - This survey is a bourgeois plot to further undermine our well-being.
Business School: 8/88 or 9.1% - How the !%^& will filling this survey help us earn money?
American and Canadian Studies: 1/39 or 2.6% - Studying American behaviour requires displaying similar kinds of apathy.
Theology and Religion: 3/287 or 3.0% - Earthly nonsense isn't to be bothered with.

...and dead last is [drum roll, please]...
Economics: 0/62 or 0.00% - There's nothing in it for me, bub.