Does Social Science Training make us Selfish and Immoral?

18 February 2010, 1515 EST

Tim Hartford (whose blog at you really must read) discusses the results of a recent survey that suggest the answer is yes:

A recent survey by Yoram Bauman and Elaina Rose, two economists from the University of Washington, explains that in experiments, economics students are less generous, more likely to choose an unco-operative approach and more likely to accept bribes.

Bauman and Rose’s survey built upon an earlier study 30 years ago which demonstrated that “postgraduate students of economics were more likely than others to “free ride” in a laboratory game, effectively exploiting other players for their own benefit.”

I tend to agree with Hartford’s supposition that what is really going on here is that economists–as well as political scientists and sociologists–are simply choosing optimal strategies based on the game theoretic models upon which the laboratory experiments are based. Cooperation is not inherently a good strategy, but rather one that is determined by the structure of a game or experiment (e.g. what is the payoff structure of particular combinations of choices, is the game a one-shot deal or is it iterated, etc). Social scientists are trained in, and therefore comfortable with, game theory and the various structures and payoffs that exist. It is reasonable then to assume that if placed in an experiment that mimics those structures and payoffs they are more likely to play the most dominant strategies.

For example, if I recognize that the experimental situation is a one-shot, Prisoner’s Dilemma then I am going to defect rather than choose to cooperate. Why? Because the outcome depends on my choice as well as my fellow subject, and the structure of the game dictates that defection is the dominant strategy for both parties–why assume the other subject would choose differently, particularly given the risk I run of a huge loss if they don’t choose to cooperate? Now, if they game is iterated and neither of us know when we will stop having to choose to cooperate, the shadow of the future makes cooperation a more dominant strategy. As Hartford noted:

[P]erhaps the budding economists are not truly mean and selfish, but are simply showing that they have mastered their studies by producing the behaviour described in simple textbook models. Arguably, the students of economics are not doing anything sinister, any more than if they calculated the roots of a quadratic equation.

There is also the possibility that those that choose to enter postgraduate training in the social sciences are simply more jaded, cynical, or “realist” in their worldview. And while they may hold personal views that cooperation and selfless behavior are desirable and moral endpoints, their research and training illustrates to them that in many cases it can be unproductive (or, in some cases, counterproductive) to cooperate oneself without taking into account what others will do.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]