Should we never trust economics majors?

“What did you major in at college?” might be a good questions for that next first date or before starting a business partnership.

Economics majors were consistently:

  • More likely to accept bribes
  • Less inclined to pro-social behavior.
  • More likely to free-ride in public-goods experiments.
  • Offered less in ultimatum games.
  • More likely to defect in prisoner’s dilemma games.
  • More likely to place profit over employee well-being in business simulations.
  • Less likely to donate to charity.

The abstract:

A substantial body of research suggests that economists are less generous than other professionals and that economics students are less generous than other students. We address this question using administrative data on donations to social programs by students at the University of Washington. Our data set allows us to track student donations and economics training over time in order to distinguish selection effects from indoctrination effects. We find that economics majors are less likely to donate than other students and that there is an indoctrination effect for non-majors but not for majors. Women majors and non-majors are less likely to contribute than comparable men.

Source: “Why are economics students more selfish than the rest?” by  Yoram Bauman and Elaina Rose

And pulled from the study:

Inquiry into the question of whether economists are less apt to engage in what Frey and Meyer (2004) refer to as pro-social behavior begins with Marwell and Ames (1981), who find that economics graduate students are more likely than other groups to free ride in a public-goods experiment. Additional experiments produced similar results: economics students offer less in ultimatum games (Carter and Irons 1991), they are more likely to defect in prisoners’ dilemma games (Frank, Gilovich and Regan 1993), they are more likely to defect in a solidarity game (Selten and Ockenfels 1998), and they are more likely to accept bribes (Frank and Schulze 2000).

Other research relies on survey data. Rubenstein (2009) describes various business scenarios and asks students, as hypothetical employers, to make a series of decisions with respect to their employees; he finds that economics students are more likely to place profit maximization ahead of the welfare of the workers.

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