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07 February 2024

Does studying economics make you more self-centred?

It’s an old trope that studying economics makes you more selfish.

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Students of Smith, Keynes, and Hayek – to name but a few - are reckoned to be less charitable, more self-serving and politically conservative than their peers in other academic disciplines…but is there any truth to the claim?

According to a new study, the answer is ‘no’- for the most part.

Dr Daniele Girardi, from King’s College London, and co-authors Dr Sai Madhurika Mamunuru (Whitman College), Dr Simon D Halliday (University of Bristol), and Dr Samuel Bowles (Santa Fe Institute) conducted an experiment with a group of economics students to test the theory.

They carried out surveys at the beginning and end of a semester with five classes of students - four studying intermediate-level economics and a control class studying nutrition.

The surveys included questions on personal characteristics and policy preferences, and four economic games with real monetary stakes—a trust game, a triple dictator game with charities, and two belief elicitation questions about the behaviour of others in the same games.

Researchers found studying economics had little effect on the generosity or reciprocity shown by students in the games, and a similarly negligible effect on their expressed policy preferences in areas such as government intervention, free markers and green policies.

They did, however, find evidence of a shift in opinion on immigration policy, with economics students seeming to favour more restrictive immigration relative to their peers studying other subjects.

The academics said: “We find that a one-semester intermediate microeconomics course has little to no effect on experimental measures of social preferences or on expectations about other people's social preferences.

“Our estimates of the effect on measures of altruism and reciprocity are close to zero and do not differ across the differing content of the courses. We also find little evidence of an effect on the students' policy preferences or political orientations.

“The one exception concerns immigration: studying intermediate microeconomics, whatever the course content, seems to make students less opposed to highly restrictive immigration policies.”

A discussion of the topic citing the study by Dr Girardi and co-authors was recently published in the Financial Times. You can read it here: https://on.ft.com/3O8l9Hc

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You can read more about the study, published in the Southern Economic Journal, here.

In this story

DanieleGirardi

Lecturer in Economics