Your Brain on Economics

A few weeks back my parents ran into my old high-school principal. After having a lovely chat with her, the topic came up as to what exactly I was doing with my life these days, and eventually it came out that I was studying economics. Her reaction was, putting it lightly, negative. It was reminiscent of how to politely behave if someone informed you that their child had taken up the habit of rotating their head 360 degrees and chanting in tongues.

Come quick! He’s talking about utility again

This reaction, though understandable given the general opinion of economics outside of the discipline, led me to wonder why my otherwise-sweet principal had this reaction to the direction of my studies? Was this some assumption about economists that most people held, and if so, was that assumption true? I though naively that the answer to my question would never be answered, until I came across a blog post by Brian M. Lucey that attempted to answer: “what impact does learning about economics have on those who take economics?” As it turns out: learning about economics isn’t necessarily the best thing for the world, and my principal might be, to some extent, right.

On the whole, the existing research seems to claim that economists, and, in particular, taking economics classes will turn you into a huge jerk. A study by R. H. Frank seems to indicate that economics majors tend to be much more corrupt than the non-economics majors, and in particular, male economics majors. This is starkly contrasted with the male non-economics majors, who are the least corrupt group of students. In addition, the more economics a person learns, the less they tend to be willing to cooperate. This seems to come from a willingness to subvert their personal morals for the sake of strategizing to maximize their personal end-result. In addition, compared to their warm hearted peers, economics professors tended to donate far less of their money to charity, preferring instead to count their pennies all evening and yell something about how Timmy should get a freaking job.

Normally, my internal economist would tell me to carefully question these results. My first response would be to say that these studies don’t seem to indicate whether economics is causing these impacts, or whether economists are just jerkier in the first place. Or said another way: do jerks tend to take economics, or does economics cause people to be jerks. However, there has been some research done by L. Wang, which seems to imply that my petty attempt to deny the interpretation of these results is foolishly wrong. Wang found that, amongst MBAs, there was a strong correlation between the number of economics courses taken, and the level of greed those students exhibited. And if you think that you can save that economist friend of yours, you can think again, because the more economics a person has, the less likely they take a normal person’s opinion into account. Even more sinisterly, students who haven’t taken economics are more likely to trust those that have.

All of this doesn’t prove that economics causes people to be greedy (we’ve made sure THAT assumption is too difficult to prove,) but it does represent a trend that raises some questions. Is it a good idea to learn about economics? I personally have learned a lot about the way the world works, both good and bad, and I hesitate to give up that newfound knowledge for the sake of a few studies. These studies admit themselves that there is definitely a portion of this that is caused by self-selection (the effect that greedy jerks tend to take more economics than regular people.) Even though the field has some value to the students who are taking it, maybe learning economics is actually bad for the world as a whole. There is one light in the darkness, and that comes from the study by Haucap, which indicates that economics majors are generally happier than non-economics majors. I take that back: that’s the light in the darkness for me, because even though I may be more likely to be a degenerate thief, at least I’m a happy one.

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