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April 21, 2008

What is Fair? Depends on Your Professor

Ray Fisman
Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise
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For years, I’ve been running “divide the pie” experiments with students at Berkeley to try to understand how people (or at least students at Berkeley) make decisions about giving.

One of my collaborators, Professor Daniel Markovits of Yale Law School, suggested that we take our experiments to New Haven to see how Yale Law students change their pie-dividing behavior after sitting through a semester of classes.

As at CBS, Yale Law students are randomly assigned to instructors in their core classes. But unlike Columbia, there can be very large differences in the material covered, depending on whether you are being taught by, say, an economist or a philosopher.

So with this experiment, we were trying to find out if differences in what and how materials were covered translated into differences in students’ giving decisions.

I must confess that I hadn’t wanted to run the Yale experiments — I have always believed that we teachers exert some influence over our students, but I thought it was more in the domain of ignoring sunk costs and figuring out how to establish entry barriers. And I certainly hadn’t expected any differences in giving decisions to show up after a single semester of classroom instruction.

But as with a lot of things in life, I was wrong. As I wrote in this recent Forbes article, 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.

It’s a sobering message for teachers such as myself: students learn much more than the facts from us. What we do in the classroom matters for students, not just for learning how to maximize profits, but also for figuring out what it is that we should actually be maximizing.