Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pre-Paying Volunteers or Economists

About a month ago I got a letter in my box at school asking me to take a survey. It was from the Educational Research Associates. I hadn't heard of them, but on the web their name was regularly associated with "individualized instruction". The idea seems to be a push away from lecture oriented learning and towards alternative instructional methods (audio, video, computer-assisted instruction) freeing the teacher to focus on individuals needs. Though that idea seems very appealing to someone who uses the crude method of talking fast to get through the vast amount of information required for most subjects, it wasn't the most interesting part of the letter. This was:

That's the letter and one dollar. At the very bottom of the letter you can read why they attached a dollar. It was to encourage, or should I say guilt, me into taking the survey. Before I tell you whether I took it or not, let me share some research:
The students made 50 decisions about giving. In some cases students started with $10, and for each dollar they gave up, their (anonymous) partner in the game would get, say, $5. In this case, giving was "cheap." In others, giving was expensive (each dollar given up yielded only 20 cents for the partner).

Someone who gives a lot when it's cheap and keeps most of the pie for himself when giving is expensive focuses on efficiency: He's making sure the maximum amount is paid out to him and his partner combined. Someone who keeps 80% of the pie when it would be cheap to give is more focused on equality. Someone who always keeps everything, regardless of the price of giving, is just plain selfish, the very embodiment of the rational, self-interested Homo economicus.

It turns out that exposure to economics makes a big difference in how students split the pie, in terms of both efficiency and outright selfishness. Students assigned to classes taught by economists were more likely to give a lot when it was cheap to do so. But they were also much more likely to take the whole pie for themselves.
Here's some more:
A substantial body of research suggests that economists are less generous than other professionals and that economics students are less generous than other students. We address this question using administrative data on donations to social programs by students at the University of Washington. Our data set allows us to track student donations and economics training over time in order to distinguish selection effects from indoctrination effects. We find that economics majors are less likely to donate than other students and that there is an indoctrination effect for non-majors but not for majors.
There some evidence that this may be a selection effect, but I'm skeptical. Tim Harford does a decent job defending economists, but I'm not sure it will convince everyone. So back to the original question, what do you think, did the $1 bribe work? Or did I take the money and run? The latter. I didn't take the survey. Here's a couple reasons why: 1) I spent the money on "generous jeans Friday", which donates the money to needy students for graduation robes, field trip fees, etc. Perhaps that was enough to silence my conscience. 2) Maybe the bribe itself kept me from completing it. Like my previous post on paying donors to give blood, maybe the low price made me think my input wasn't that valuable. 3) Maybe I'm just not your normal teacher.  When I went to look at the site just now all I saw was this message:
Thank you for accessing the World Geography Survey. We have had an overwhelming response and the field time is now closed. We hope you will consider participating in the future.

Thank you for your interest.
Apparently the average teacher hasn't taken enough economics. Or maybe I've taken too much.

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