The lost letter experiment

I’ve long believed that studying economics creates a more individualistic, materialistic and competitive person. Particularly, microeconomics is about individuals (homo economicus) who must make the best decisions for themselves, which is why they are rational and narrowly self-interested individuals. Rationality in economics implies two attributes – optimality and consistency. Hence, in microeconomics models decisions are based on maximising utility or profits, minimising costs…etc. In the end, it’s quite blatant to think that economics students, in my own experience, admire people who make large amounts of money.

There is enough empirical evidence (based on surveys and behavioural experiments), which demonstrates such behaviour in economics students. Last week I read many scientific papers on this topic and honestly, I was really impressed when I read the article of Yezer et al. (1996). These authors carried out an experiment which resulted in the complete opposite.

Their experiment is an adapted version of ‘Stanley Milgram’s Lost Letter Experiment’. It basically consists of leaving several envelopes with currency (10 US$ in this case) in the classroom before the lecture. The experiment concludes with calculating how many students return the envelope. Yezer et al. (1996) conducted the experiment with economics and noneconomics students. Surprisingly, 18 out of 32 (i.e. 56%) envelopes from the economics classes were returned. Only 10 out of 32 (i.e. 31%) envelopes from the noneconomics classes were returned, contrary to expectations. Curious, isn’t it?

However, much research is certainly needed in relation to this topic.


Yezer, A.M., Goldfarb, R.S. and Poppen, P.J. (1996), “Does studying economics discourage cooperation? Watch what we do, not what we say or how we play”, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 177-87.

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