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August 8, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor

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Infectious Good

Ten years ago, Robert Frank, Thomas Gilovich and Dennis Regan published “Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?,” a famous paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

They surveyed previous work on the topic, did some of their own, and concluded that, yes, the likelihood that people would make selfish choices increased with their exposure to economics. Confronted with various social dilemmas, economists who had been schooled in self-interest were less likely than others sampled to do the generous or even the ethical thing.

Economists and their students bargained tougher, shirked more on voluntary payments and finked on their fellows more frequently in lab experiments, gave less to charities in the real world, and responded more evasively than others on questionnaires.

Why? Either people who went into economics were different to begin with. Or else the experience of being drilled in the self-interest model conditioned them to behave differently — not radically, but enough to notice. Or, most likely, the authors concluded, some of each.

Recently, Frank sat down to round up what he had learned about the topic of cooperation in the decade since the article. The result appeared earlier this year as What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments, a book of essays, many of them adapted from technical papers.

By itself, the book won’t change economic discourse. Only a better model can do that. Frank’s candidate for broadening our assumptions about human nature is a Darwinian approach in which a wide range of hardwired emotions predispose us to cooperation as well as to the pursuit of naked self-interest.

For most economists, and especially for the rest of us, the book is a fine map of some of the territory that economics leaves out. It is both a reassuring guide to the burgeoning literature in evolutionary psychology and economics on modeling motivation, and a showcase for Frank’s own special talents as an analyst of labor markets.

The title essay argues that moral satisfaction often can explain salary differentials better than the differences in education and training traditionally employed by economists. Many people settle for lower-paying government or non-profit sector jobs, Frank argues, because they see them as being socially responsible and are compensated by increased self-esteem: school teachers, police officers, nurses, community organizers and the like. Women in particular often earn less for jobs they consider morally responsible.

Pollyannish? Don’t be so sure. Frank is alert to a range of human motives that may have disappeared from the economics journals and business magazines — but which continue strong in human hearts and minds. Who is to say that practitioners of successful cooperation don’t know more than proponents of routine hard-headed behavior?

Frank is an uncommonly interesting man in his own right. After graduating in math from Georgia Tech in 1966, he spent two years in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer, then went to Berkeley for an economics PhD, before moving to Cornell University, where he remains today. As chief economist for the Civil Aeronautics Board under Alfred Kahn in the late 1970s, he helped phase out the old-line agency in the very dawn of deregulation.

Since then, he has become a prolific and original writer on topics of economic justice. He is the author of Choosing the Right Pond, Passions Within Reason, Luxury Fever and The Winner-Take-All Society, co-authored with Philip Cook, as well as an introductory economics text with Ben Bernanke, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. He is a regular adviser to the Dalai Lama.

There is also a lively interview with Frank in the forthcoming The Changing Face of Economics: Conversations with Cutting Edge Economists by David Colander, Richard P.F. Holt and J. Barkley Rosser, Jr.

Others interviewed include Robert Axtel of the Brookings Institution and H. Peyton Young of Johns Hopkins University; Kenneth G. Binmore of University College London; William A. (“Buz”) Brock of the University of Wisconsin; Duncan Foley of the New School for Social Research; Herbet Gintis of the University of Massachusetts Amherst; Deirdre McCloskey of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Erasmus University Rotterdam; Richard Norgaard and Matthew Rabin, both of the University of California, Berkeley– plus grand old men Paul Samuelson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University.

If pressed, Frank notes, “most economists will concede that sometimes care about more than just their own material well being. Many have concerns for the welfare of other people, for aesthetics, for their duties as citizens, and so on.” But economists ignore these complicating overtones despite evidence that people who act on cooperative motives often do better than those who don’t.

The process of contagion plays a big part in Frank’s book. Good is infectious as well as bad, he says. Sanctions are important, because if vigorous enforcement isn’t pursued, standards of acceptable conduct decline over time. But good behavior can be contagious too.

Readers who wish to experiment can undertake their own. When you drive, drive exaggeratedly generously for a time. Slow down to let persons seeking to turn left do so. Permit drivers to enter heavy traffic from side streets.

Watch carefully to see how often the beneficiary of your courtesy pays forward your kindness at the next opportunity. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

And imagine a society where such ethical norms were generalized and gently reinforced not just by injunctions such as the old Boy Scout motto — Do a Good Deed Daily! — but by the findings of a deeper and more sophisticated social science as well.

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