Biological Does Not Equal Evolutionary: The Economics of Menstruation?!

Also known as: What exactly do economists think biological means? Quoting Cheap Talk:

“Here is the abstract from a paper by Matthew Pearson and Burkhard Schipper:

In an experiment using two-bidder first-price sealed bid auctions with symmetric independent private values, we collected information on the female participants’ menstrual cycles. We find that women bid significantly higher than men in their menstrual and premenstrual phase but do not bid significantly different in other phases of the menstrual cycle. We suggest an evolutionary hypothesis according to which women are genetically predisposed by hormones to generally behave more riskily during their fertile phase of their menstrual cycle in order to increase the probability of conception, quality of offspring, and genetic variety.

Believe it or not, this contributes to a growing literature.”

Clicking through to the paper below, we get this lovely lit review for an intro:

There is a growing literature with empirical evidence that biological factors substantially influence economic outcomes. For instance, using data from a large Italian bank, Ichino and Moretti (2008) conclude that the women’s higher levels of absenteeism in the workplace due to their menstrual cycle explains at least 14% of the gender wage gap. Surveying recent experimental and empirical work on gender and competition, Croson and Gneezy (2009) conclude that despite some caveats there is “clear evidence that men are more risk-taking than women in most tasks and populations” and that on average women prefer less competitive situations than men. There is also evidence that on average tall men earn more than shorter men (Case and Paxson, 2008), and attractive people earn on average more than less attractive people (Kanazawa and Kovar, 2004).

Yes. That men are more risk-taking, that tall people earn more, and that attractive people earn more are all “biological factors” that “substantially influence economic outcomes”. Wait. What? If attractiveness is a biological factor – what the hell is a social factor? I mean, you could say all social factors are a kind of biological factor since people are in fact biological, but then why bother having the category and the distinction? Also, I love the lack of specificity in the findings as to where and when any of this took place – all women, across all times etc. It’s.. kind of astounding. Hey economists (not that they are reading..): Please, please pay attention to scope conditions, pay attention to the fact that the categories we use are mutable – even biological categories, if not especially biological categories. Remember Eugenics? Remember every other time social science got it wrong when we assumed innate differences on the basis of “biological” categories? Just keep that in mind.

Beyond that, just because an effect is connected to some biological feature – hormone level, blood sugar, a genetic marker, whatever – that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “evolutionary”. Think again about race – there are evolutionary reasons why some people have darker skin than others, but that doesn’t mean evolution explains anything interesting about why people with darker skin have worse economic outcomes.

I invite readers to examine the whole paper and help me find the exact right words to critique the main finding. After four days of ASA, I’m not sure I’m up to it.

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1 Comment

  1. Well, actually, this field already has a name in some way : evolutionary psychology (EP). And the criticism you make here are exactly of the same kind as the ones we can read against EP.