Does studying economics make people more selfish? And if so, what role do business schools have to play in shaping the values of our future leaders? Karoline Strauss, Professor of Management at ESSEC Business School, shares her research on how and when business education can produce greater levels of selfishness – or not.
In September 2009, the then-US President Barack Obama remarked in a speech to employees of a General Motors plant on “the attitude that’s prevailed from Washington to Wall Street to Detroit for too long; an attitude that valued wealth over work, selfishness over sacrifice, and greed over responsibility”. It seems unlikely that we will hear similar comments on the destructiveness of selfishness and greed from the White House in the foreseeable future. Some believe that putting yourself and your own interests first is not selfish or shortsighted, but that it makes you “smart”. That it is nothing to be ashamed of but that it is in fact perfectly rational: we are all driven to maximize our gains and minimize our losses. After all, this is what mainstream economics teaches us about human nature . This is what we have learned in our economics classes in business school. This is what many of the leaders of our businesses and institutions have been taught, and this is what we are teaching to our future leaders. But can learning that humans are inherently selfish turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Does studying economics make people more selfish? And if so, what role do business schools have to play in shaping the values of our future leaders?
Looking after number one
Researchers have highlighted that economic theories can become self-fulfilling prophecies : if we teach students that people are inherently selfish, they will behave in selfish ways themselves. After all, if you believe that those around you will only look out for themselves, it makes sense to put yourself “first”… Research to date has shown that students majoring in economics are less concerned with the benefits of others. The more economics courses students take, the more positively they view self-interest, and the better they feel about their own self-interested behavior. It seems learning about economics fosters more positive attitudes towards selfishness. In one study , undergraduate students who had never taken any economics courses read statements from famous economists which either took a positive or a negative perspective on self-interest (or a neutral statement on the economy of Malaysia). The students were then asked about their opinions on greed – how correct, good, and moral it is. Students who had read about the benefits of self-interest saw greed as significantly more moral than students in the other two groups. Simply presenting self-interest as something positive and natural had influenced these students’ attitudes towards greed. But these effects may be fleeting. Can studying economics really have an enduring effect on students’ attitudes and values? And how would this even happen?
In a study with my colleagues Girts Racko from the University of Warwick and Brendan Burchell from the University of Cambridge, we set out to investigate these questions. We studied economics undergraduates from three leading universities in Latvia. These students completed a survey at the beginning of their first academic year, and then again two years later, at the end of the second academic year of their course. This allowed us to track changes in their values, and determine what, if anything, brought these changes about.
Peering into your fellow students
From previous research we knew that fellow students were likely to play an important role, more so than professors or the curriculum . This is because social interactions with our peers often tell us what is expected in a situation. By interacting with others we learn which views and attitudes they approve of and agree with, and over time we develop a shared understanding of the values of our field of study. Our findings show that their peers in fact have a powerful effect on students’ values: Those who spent more time with their fellow students became more interested in power and prestige and in their own pleasure and enjoyment over the course of two years, and less interested in creativity and curiosity.
However, this only happened to students in a specific type of economics course: one narrowly focused on economics. Students in this course took few, if any, non-economics classes; their classes had a strong emphasis on saving and investment, and they rarely interacted with non-economics students. They may hardly ever have encountered alternative perspectives to the views of economics. To them, their fellow students likely seemed a relatively uniform group sharing the same values: an interest in power and prestige, and a view that people are inherently self-interested. This in turn may have made it more likely for students to adopt these values themselves. Indeed, this effect has long been known in the social sciences: when we are unable to recall instances of a particular attitude or opinion being challenged, we overestimate how prevalent it is .
On the other hand, students in economics courses that included non-economics classes and that exposed them to professors and students from other disciplines showed no changes in their interest in power and prestige over the course of two years.
What do our findings mean for those who believe that greed and selfishness are not desirable qualities for the leaders of our institutions and businesses? Who believe that when we are in a position of power and privilege we have a moral obligation to look out for those less fortunate? And finally, who are concerned about the effects of business schools on the values of our students?
For policy makers in business education, our study has two key implications: First, it highlights the role of a diverse curriculum and faculty. In our study, economics students who took a broad range of classes and interacted with students and professors from other disciplines did not become more self-interested or power-driven, most likely because they encountered a broad range of views and perspectives in their courses. The second implication is the importance of a diverse student body: Students’ peers have a critical influence on their values during their time at university. They provide a frame of reference and a point of comparison, and particularly in the absence of a diverse curriculum and faculty, they can have an enduring effect on students’ attitudes and values.
In an increasingly interdependent world of work, the future success of our students depends on forming collaborative relationships with others. Looking out for themselves first and foremost will not contribute to their success. The overriding message for business schools then seems to be one of fostering diversity in their faculty and student body to dispel selfishness. And maybe we also need to take a look at how we define success in the first place. As Adam Grant  put it:
“What I would love to see is a set of criteria for success that assesses, in the way that you have pursued your own goals, have you lifted other people up instead of cutting them down? Have you found ways to benefit others and pay forward the help you have received? Those are markers of real success. You haven’t had to achieve your goals at the expense of others, but rather, you were able to succeed in a way that spread and helped the people around you.”
-  Obama, B. (2009). Remarks by the president to general motors plant employees. General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant, Warren, Ohio: 15. September. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/15/AR2009091501338.html
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