Posts Tagged ‘Columbia Business School’

Are You What You Learn?

May 28, 2008

Yes, You Have a Brain in ThereDo an exact word search in Google on the terms “you are what you learn” and you’ll turn up more than 3400 results. But is it true?


It sounds like it ought to be true and heaven knows I am inclined to believe it is. But is there any proof of it for informal or formal learners?


I’m glad you asked.


Raymond Fisman a professor at Columbia Business School and his co-authors Shachar Kariv of the University of California at Berkeley and Daniel Markovits at Yale Law School, have tested that idea in a remarkable way and the answer may well be yes.


Here’s the setup. Yale law students are randomly assigned to professors for their first year classes in contracts and torts. Sometimes the teachers are economists by training, sometimes they’re trained in the humanities and sometimes they don’t have any “strong disciplinary allegiances.” The teachers are permitted to create their own syllabi for the classes.


Using this ‘natural experiment,’ Fisman et al put 70 of these Yale law students in a computer lab and put them through their paces in something called a ‘dictator game,’ a game commonly used in experimental economics. The game tested the students’ willingness to give in various situations.


“In some cases students started with $10,” writes Fisman, “and for each dollar they gave up, their (anonymous) partner in the game would get, say, $5. In this case giving was ‘cheap.’ In others giving was expensive (each dollar given up yielded only 20 cents for the partner.”


Here’s what they found: 

“Relative to subjects with economics instructors, those who studied under faculty from humanistic disciplines were more sympathetic to equality; subjects whose instruction came from unaffiliated faculty showed a similar emphasis on equality as those who studied with humanists. These effects were very large in magnitude; in our favored specifications we found that exposure to economists causes a students’ expenditure on [other participants] to be nearly twice as sensitive to the price of giving as those exposed to humanists.


“Subjects exposed to economics instructors displayed greater levels of indexical selfishness relative to those exposed to humanists (and those exposed to unaffiliated faculty exhibited intermediate preferences).” 

The results gave pause to Fisman, who is an economist by training.  

“These findings hint at the influence that powerful ideas may have in shaping how we see the world, even late in life. It’s also a sobering message for teachers such as myself. The students in my classroom will venture forth into the world of business and management, carrying with them some of the viewpoints and attitudes that I choose to emphasize in my lectures. Students learn much more than the facts; what we choose to communicate to them is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.” 

For informal learners I see at least two implications: 

  1. The mind remains open to new ideas, suggestions, and information, and can continue to be shaped over time.
  2. Since informal learners are likely the ones directing their own learning they take the role of the teacher, deciding what they expose themselves to and what they don’t. Because 70 percent of all learning is said to be informal, it is probably our own self-selection that makes our mind or our thinking rigid over time.