The Perils of Studying Economics
If, like most readers of Ordinary Squares, you picked up last Sunday’s New York Times, you might have skimmed through an OpEd investigating whether economists (and economics students) engage in less pro-social behavior.
The OpEd cites recent research from economists at the University of Washington. Using administrative data from the registrar, Yoram Bauman and Elaina Rose test whether enrolling in college-level economics courses changes the likelihood that students voluntarily donate to public-interest funds.
During their online registration process, students at the University of Washington have the option of donating $3 to two different organizations – the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG) and Affordable Tuition Now (ATN). Over the study period, about 25 percent of UW students donated to WashPIRG and 34 percent donated to ATN. But does the completion of an economics course or two make students less likely to contribute to these public interest groups?
The research finds that, on the whole, econ majors are less likely to contribute to WashPIRG and ATN than non-econ majors. Even before they’ve stepped foot in the classroom, students that chose economics are less likely to give than students that choose other majors. And there’s no effect of coursework on the econ majors. After taking both an Introductory Economics course and an Intermediate Economics course, the likelihood that an econ major will donate to WashPIRG or ATN holds steady at about 5 percent. This finding suggests a selection effect – that students who are less likely to give are also more likely to choose economics as their major.
For non-majors, though, the effect of economics coursework is different. After taking an Introductory Economics course, non-econ majors are significantly less likely to donate to both WashPIRG and ATN. (The results are somewhat more ambiguous for Intermediate level economics courses.)
What underlies this relationship? What about Introductory Economics makes non-econ students less likely to engage in pro-social behavior, as defined by donating to WashPIRG and ATN? The authors can’t be sure. “Further research is needed to determine the cause of this effect, e.g., whether it results from exposure to certain concepts – such as homo economicus, the prisoners’ dilemma, or the invisible hand – or from exposure to certain people – namely, the faculty and students in the economics department – or from some other cause.”
I bet taking Sociology courses makes them more likely to donate.