The A..hole Factor in Economics

23 February 2007 at 4:51 am 3 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

I may be entirely mistaken, but my personal and admittedly casual observations after working in academia since 1989 seem to point toward something like the following approximate generalizations: “Orthodox” (or “mainstream”) economists and finance scholars are — I stress: as a crude approximation — reserved, not very wordy, introverted, but still direct (bordering on brutal, particularly in seminars). They are spiteful of “softies.” On the other hand, “heterodox” (“non-mainstream”) economists (including many management scholars) are generally more extroverted, easier to get along with, and less direct/brutal. However, they are as spiteful of mainstream economics as mainstream economists are of the soft stuff (Marxist economists are, however, a lot like mainstream economists). Again, this is just a tendency; there are many, many counter-examples. Am I right? Or just biased (e.g., by hanging out with too many heterodox types)?

Supposing I am right, what may cause this pattern? Is the perhaps (somewhat) nicer behavior of “soft” economists caused by feelings of inferiority, real or imagined (virtually all heterodox economists secretly admire a fine orthodox symbol manipulator!) which cause them to not stick out their necks too much? Or is there something inherent in ortodox and heterodox economics that attracts different personality types?

I suppose this is researchable. To generate dependent variables, let orthodox and heterodox economists do Bob Sutton’s test. Then let them answer questions such as, “Economics pay too little attention to the market process,” “Surplus value is a useful category for analytical economics,” “Since genuine uncertainty is pervasive all investment decisions are fundamentally irrational ,” etc. (using Likert scales). Construct measures of orthodoxy/heterodoxy based on these to obtain independent variables (it may be necessary to partition the sample, at least with respect to the heterodox types). Then do the regression thing.

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Reputations Die Hard “Lead Papers”?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chihmao Hsieh  |  24 February 2007 at 7:08 pm

    I can appreciate both “orthodox” economists and “heterodox” economists, and I personally pine for the label “‘orthodox’ organizational economist” (possible?). Nevertheless, I have made observations similar to those described in the first paragraph of the original post. I have searched my pockets and my greenish .02 follow.

    Orthodox economists share among themselves (1*) a quite precise and well-accepted (read: esp. to themselves) research-oriented language, and such economists also (2*) take pride in using a basic parsimonious language (i.e. set of labels) to make sense of the(ir) world.

    “Heterodox” economists tend to have a less precise, less-universally-accepted, and thus wordy language. They’d likely defend all the additional blah-blah by arguing that creativity is better supported if we are each free to attach (slightly?) different meanings to the same term, and that furthermore the ‘richer’ (read: more complex) yet somehow-still-apparently-prevalent phenomena require the use of unique made-up terminology. While complex-sounding heterodox economics is indeed rarely/sometimes/often complex-sounding by necessity, that’s not always the case.

    Playfully speaking, orthodox economists would probably compare heterodox economists to children who knock their heads forcefully into the wall and then into each other multiple times daily, in the name of 'creativity' (or is that 'insanity'?).

    Heterodox economists would probably tell orthodox economists that they're 'missing out' and should "smoke more pot, dudes."

    More seriously, as a result of (1*), orthodox economists are less likely to be talkative to other ORTHODOX ECONOMISTS about RESEARCH, simply for fear that valuable ideas are easily stolen.

    As a result of (2*), orthodox economists are less likely to be talkative to ANYBODY OTHER THAN ORTHODOX ECONOMISTS about ANYTHING. They take pride in knowing how to describe and make sense of the vast majority of the world’s phenomena with a parsimonious set of terms. Talking to others risks ‘dipping down’ to the level of possibly learning unnecessary, juvenile words and word combinations that the non-orthodox create. Costly distortions could result.

  • 2. Kevin Carson  |  28 February 2007 at 1:35 am

    Given the mathematical emphasis of orthodox economics, could the combination of introversion and brutal directness possibly be tied to Asperger’s Syndrome?

  • 3. David Hoopes  |  2 April 2007 at 10:47 am

    I think connecting direct and brutal is a mistake. “Management scholars,” (seems like an oxymoron (my Ph.D. is in management)) are as brutal as anyone. The difference is that if a ‘management scholar” hates someone’s work they won’t say it in a seminar or to the person’s face. The hatred of MS’s tends to come out elsewhere. I think it tends to be a passive-aggressive field.

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