Economists are more selfish

In the early 1980s, a famous piece of research by Gerald Marwell and Ruth Ames (summarised here) suggested that economics graduates were more inclined than others to ‘free-ride’ on public goods by taking the benefits of public goods but failing to contribute to them. Neil Gandal, an economics professor from Tel Aviv University, and his colleagues Sonia Roccas, Lilach Sagiv and Amy Wrzesniewski have gone a little deeper into this problem by examining the personal value priorities of economists.

In carrying out the study, the authors used Shalom Schwartz’s personal values framework which is composed of 10 types of values (achievement, benevolence, conformity, hedonism, power, security, self-direction, stimulation, tradition, and universalism). Using this framework they tested the value preferences of 97 first-year university economics students and 165 first-year students from other social science disciplines.

In particular, Gandal et al looked at attitudes towards values of self-interest (achievement, hedonism, power). The results show that economics students attribute more importance to the pursuit of self-interest than do students from other disciplines.

In respect of values related to concern for others, economics students attribute less importance to universalism than non-economists, but there was no difference between groups in their attitudes to benevolence. The authors suggest that universalism is the general concern for society as a whole, and for nature, while benevolence is concern for people we know and have regular contact with. They conclude, possibly a little facetiously, that economists “may make good friends or neighbors, but are relatively less concerned with the welfare of people who are not part of their in-group”.

Gandal et al also considered whether the differences in outlook and value preferences that they have identified in economists are the result of the study of economics and socialisation into the discipline. However, they found that the value differences between economists and non-economists exist before students begin studying economics. That is, self-interested people are more likely to choose to study economics.

We may look at these findings, take a little cynical amusement at the expense of economists from them, and leave it at that. But the findings do raise some awkward questions, as the authors recognise. We might ask: What are the consequences of economists holding to a value set that prioritises personal interest over the common interest? Given that professional economists play a significant role in the development of both public policy and the policies of large corporations such as banks, what impact will the value priorities of economists have on such policies? Is it possible that these policies are skewed towards self-interest and away from concern for others to an extent that does not represent the value preferences of the general population?


Neil Gandal, Sonia Roccas, Lilach Sagiv, and Amy Wrzesniewski (2005) Personal value priorities of economists. Human Relations, 58(10), 1227-1252.

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