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Are economists selfish and scheming…or rational?

I’m reposting an interesting article by Tim Harford of Financial Times and a response by Bill Petti from Signal/Noise. These articles discuss a recent survey by Yoram Bauman and Elaina Rose, from the University of Washington, which demonstrates that economics students are less likely to choose cooperative approaches. However, Harford makes an important point:

“Perhaps the budding economists are not truly mean and selfish, but are simply showing that they have mastered their studies by producing the behavior 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.”

Petti argues this sentiment further:

“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…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.”

These articles bring up an important point: that people are not selfish or cooperative by nature but, rather, their self-interested or cooperative behavior is based upon their knowledge and calculations of the game. It is important to remember this, especially as a counterpoint to more pessimistic views of human nature, if we are to recognize the occasions when cooperation is the more beneficial approach for all parties. Furthermore, this rational view of human nature opens new possibilities for cooperation when complimenting a constructivist approach to IR or sociology – if the structure of a game determines our cooperation, perhaps we may discover the agency to redesign these structures of interaction so that cooperative behavior is more often encouraged.