A new paper by Raúl López-Pérez and Eli Spiegelman investigates “truth preferences” — i.e., preferences for being honest versus lying. Their goal was to study whether economics students lie more as a result of their education. Or do liars self-select? From the paper:
Does studying economics give people “maximizing” habits of thought, and thus cause them to behave more in line with its own predictions, or do people already inclined towards such behavior tend to self-select into economics?
A computer test structured with a slight incentive to lie was administered to 258 students at The Autonomous University of Madrid. The screen showed two colors, and participants were paid 14 euros for declaring blue and 15 euros for declaring green to another person, regardless of the actual color shown on screen. So what happened? According to the authors, the business and economics (“B&E”) majors gamed the system:
Our results show that the subjects most likely to exhibit honest behavior in our decision problem are the “B&E” non-B&E students, particularly if they expect this behavior from other subjects. In contrast, we do not find significant differences in honesty between males and females or between religious or non-religious people. In addition, an instrumental variable analysis suggests that the difference between B&E and other students is in part a matter of learning, and not only self-selection. Hence, our results are in accordance with other experiments showing that B&E students tend to conform more neatly with the homo economicus paradigm, or alternatively with a utilitarian or consequentialistic mode of reasoning in moral matters.
But given the experimental setting and the student’s awareness that they were participating in an experiment, does the experiment really demonstrate a tendency to lie? Or does it perhaps show that economics students are maximizers who saw the experiment as a constraint problem where the instructions were to be ignored in favor of maximization?