I have written here and elsewhere -- including in academic journals with Fabrizio Ferraro and Jeff Pfeffer -- about research and theory suggesting that, when people are exposed to economic theory and assumptions, they tend to become more selfish. This research, as with much evidence in the behavioral science, shows that exposure to ideas or even little "primes" (such as one study that simply exposed students to backpack versus a briefcase) can have surprisingly big effects on whether people are selfish or generous. In this vein, an article in the December 2011 edition of the Academy of Management Learning & Education journal by Long Wang, Deepak Malhotra, and Keith Murnighan reports three studies that add to this troubling pile of evidence:
In the first study, students played something called "The Dictator Game," where they are given complete control over how ten dollars were distributed between themselves and a counterpart in another room. The researchers found that students who studied economics were significantly more greedy than those who studied education, with the average economics student taking about a $1.25 more for him or herself (($7.76 vs. $6.50).
A second study compared the attitudes of students who had taken two or fewer economics courses to those who had taken three or more classes, and found that those students who had taken more economics classes had more positive views of their own greedy behavior and of morality of greed in general.
A third study compared students who were simply exposed to short statements from economists about the virtues of self-interested behavior versus statements from economists about the negative effects of self-interest. Then they were given a questionnaire with five statements about the benefits of greed. The researchers found that simply being exposed to these short arguments packed a wallop: People who read about the benefits of self-interest (although randomly assigned to the condition) were more likely portray greed as good, correct, and moral.
Taken together, these studies, along with a pile of research before them, suggests the assumptions we are exposed to in life -- and those we are attracted to as well -- can have a big impact on how we view and treat others. They don't show that economics is inherently evil, but do suggest that embracing (or just being exposed to) one of the core assumptions in the field -- that people are inherently self-interested -- can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which can make you think and act like a more greedy person.
Looking out for yourself is necessary in life. We all need to money, we have others we need to take care of, and striving to do great individual work can benefit those around us in many ways. But studies like this one are instructive. They remind us that being around others who are greedy and selfish can cause us to be infected with the same behaviors and beliefs, that just being around money and thinking about it can lead us to be less likely to help others (and less likely to ask for help), and that when we are feeling competitive and wanting more and more it is a good time to stop ask and ourselves: Do I have enough for myself? Do I really need more?