Economists too thoughtful to be kind

A result the media loves to report is that people who study economics are more likely to react like jerks when asked to respond to game theoretic predicaments like the prisoners’ dilemma. Are economists naturally mean? I can’t rule it out, but I always thought a more likely explanation was that they have just thought about these puzzles ahead of time, and simply respond with a memorised ‘correct’ answer, such as the Nash equilibrium. So I was glad to see this paper in Nature finding that anyone who has a while to think about how to react to these situations also becomes more selfish:

Cooperation is central to human social behaviour. However, choosing to cooperate requires individuals to incur a personal cost to benefit others. Here we explore the cognitive basis of cooperative decision-making in humans using a dual-process framework. We ask whether people are predisposed towards selfishness, behaving cooperatively only through active self-control; or whether they are intuitively cooperative, with reflection and prospective reasoning favouring ‘rational’ self-interest. To investigate this issue, we perform ten studies using economic games. We find that across a range of experimental designs, subjects who reach their decisions more quickly are more cooperative. Furthermore, forcing subjects to decide quickly increases contributions, whereas instructing them to reflect and forcing them to decide slowly decreases contributions. Finally, an induction that primes subjects to trust their intuitions increases contributions compared with an induction that promotes greater reflection. To explain these results, we propose that cooperation is intuitive because cooperative heuristics are developed in daily life where cooperation is typically advantageous. We then validate predictions generated by this proposed mechanism. Our results provide convergent evidence that intuition supports cooperation in social dilemmas, and that reflection can undermine these cooperative impulses.

A take-away would be that if you want someone to cooperate with you, you could put them in a situation where they need to make a decision on the spot. And if you want to come across as a naturally nice guy, go with your cooperative instincts and don’t think too much. Greater selfishness should be expected as a downside to letting people go into a detailed ‘near’ mode, where they concretely reflect on strategic choices and the likely outcomes. Calculation makes you calculating.

What about those brave behavioural economists, sent onto the front lines to study human psychology? Maybe they should ask for extra pay to compensate for the risk their work presents to their personalities.

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  • Tom Breton

    people who study economics are more likely to act like jerks when asked to react to game theoretic predicaments like the prisoners dilemma.

    Another hypothesis is that they simply read the problem differently.

    Specifically, they may read “utility” (and informal descriptions of utility) in its technical meaning, as completely encompassing, well, utility.

    Those unfamiliar with the concept might well read utility in a less encompassing way; it’s not hard to imagine someone unfamiliar with it saying “other things are important to me besides utility.”

    • IMASBA

      “Those unfamiliar with the concept might well read utility in a less encompassing way; it’s not hard to imagine someone unfamiliar with it saying “other things are important to me besides utility.”

      In that case, isn’t something lacking in economics courses? After all, economics should serve the people, not the other way around. I’d say it’s pretty damn important any economist understands what the people would want, even beyond immediate utility (ie. leaving half the forest up so the grandkids can ahve nice things too, instead of cuting the whole forest down to satisfy an immediate craving).

      • Someone from the other side

        Utility encompasses the idea that grand kids should have nice kids too

      • Someone from the other side

        Nice things

      • IMASBA

        Does it, every time? I’m not so sure about that. Sure, you could modifiy your definition of utility to account for sustainability issues, but too often that does not happen and that’s the source of a lot of friction between economists and average Joe (and also scientists).

      • Someone from the other side

        I would argue so – if my preferences value nice things for my grand children, then the utility function should give a higher value if that preference is satisfied.

        Just because average joe does not understand the concept of utility does not mean it’s any different within economics.

        This is kind of like my beef with the usual criticism of shareholder value – shareholder value, when evaluated properly, takes other stakeholders into account as well. If customers value sustainable production, the company that satisfies this will ceteris paribus do better than the polluting one… If they don’t, well though luck, then probably pollution is the way to go.

      • IMASBA

        You are idealizing, saying how things should be, but that’s not how they are. In the real world economists continuosly make recommendations that may work in the short term but are disastrous in the long term: they aren’t exactly at the forefront of environmental/sustainibility activism and most are satisfied to maintaining the status quo (3% growth within neoliberal capitalism, placating the whimsical gods of “the market”), never asking why. There are of course exceptions, but having a few exceptions is not a good enough result for a university level field that calls itself a science.

  • Intuition is far; calculation is near; far is generous, near is stingy. Economists are trained to be stingy, and economics attracts near-mode thinkers.

    Near-far analysis suggests you might get different results with different branches of economics. Macroeconomics is far relative to microeconomics. My guess is that Paul Krugman is more generous than, say, Robin Hanson.

    • Lord

      A focus on the quantifiable short changes the unquantifiable.

  • VV

    Humans are social animals. In general, when making a quick decision, cooperating with your tribe is a safe default choice. When you have more time to evaluate, you may decide that defection serves your interests better, after all.

  • komponisto

    Given that cooperation is the right choice in so many situations, this result should perhaps be filed under “people don’t know how to use deliberative reasoning to make better decisions than they would make by going with their instincts”. (Cf. the standard advice not to “overthink” SAT questions.)

    As for economists being jerks, I suspect that’s one of those false stereotypes — like Less Wrongers being (naïve) utilitarians — that result from a combination of overestimating the homogeneity of a group and misunderstanding salient examples. Economists are also somewhat weird, and people tend to confuse weird people with jerks.

    • Pablo

      I don’t know how much emphasis you are putting on the word ‘naive’ above, but according to the latest survey, 62% of Less Wrongers self-identify as consequentialists ( This figure is extremely high relative to the general population, and quite high even relative to the population of professional philosophers (

      • komponisto

        “Consequentialist” is not the same thing as “utilitarian”!

      • Pablo

        What proportion of consequentialist Less Wrongers are not utilitarians, in your estimate?

      • komponisto

        Higher than I estimate you think, given that you’ve asked that question. Note that according to the survey only 22.1% choose torture over dust specks (the naïve utilitarian answer).

      • An analogy: most American deontologists (i.e., religious people) believe “killing is wrong” yet support “just wars.” You might say they reject “naive deontology,” or you might say they refuse to be consistent when it’s inconvenient. Most of us would say the second. Why refuse to apply the same logic to your supposedly not “naive” utilitarians?

    • robertwiblin

      This doesn’t show that being cooperative leads to good outcomes, but I suspect you are right that our calculating self underestimates the long term benefits of being nice.

  • As TV Tropes puts it, Dumb Is Good.