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Economic Assumptions and Controversies

Rational Self-Interested Man: Does economics enhance competitive behaviors of students?


One of the common assumptions in many economic models is that agents act in rational, self-interested ways. This has prompted many to investigate whether such an emphasis on competition has an impact on students. Frank and Schulz (2000) find that economic students are more corrupt, albeit this appears to be a result of self-selection into the major as opposed to indoctrination after choosing the major. Both Frank and Shulz (2000) and Sequino et al (1996) find that male students are less likely to act cooperatively. Finally, Frank, Gilovich, and Regan (1996) find that economics training leads citizens to believe in self-interest and thus to expect others to be more likely to defect in social dilemmas which in turn makes them less likely to exhibit cooperative behavior.

Cooperative learning, when properly structured, has the advantage of counteracting this tendency in students (especially males students which dominate the major) to be less cooperative.

Economics as an Unsettled Science

Becker (2007) argues that "the very nature of a science is to have unresolved topics and ongoing scrutiny of themes no matter how steeped in tradition." According to Perry (1970) one of the more significant intellectual developments for college students is the shift from the single answer, black and white approach to learning, to understanding and tolerating multiple perspectives.

Cooperative controversy exercises can promote the understanding of these multiple perspectives. "In introductory economics courses, such viewpoints arise in discussions regarding the impact of minimum wage legislation, trade restrictions, marginal tax rate increases, antitrust decisions, and macroeconomic policy decisions, among others. By carefully choosing articles with opposing viewpoints, such as those widely available in "course readers" (Bonello and Lobo, 2008), and thoughtfully designing cooperative structures, instructors can generate a more thorough understanding of multiple perspectives on such issues." (Maier, McGoldrick, and Simkins, 2009)

Why does cooperative controversy work? Johnson et al (2000) argue that students who are asked to justify a position to peers they "engage in cognitive rehearsal, use higher-level reasoning strategies, and deepen their understanding of their positions." This shift continues as students reflect on the contrary position then presented, generating conceptual conflict which pushes them towards a deeper understanding as they work to resolve their uncertainty. "Finally, students derive a new, reconceptualized, and reorganized conclusion by accommodating the perspective and reasoning of others and by adapting their own perspective and reasoning. They create novel solutions and decisions that are qualitatively better than their initial conclusion."


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