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Invigorating 'The Dismal Science'


Thomas Carlyle famously called economics “the dismal science.” Experimental economists at Pitt are proving him wrong.

Economic research often starts with asking important questions. Professor Lise Vesterlund wanted to know more about the achievement gap between boys and girls on standardized math tests. Using experiments she designed and ran at the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Lab, Vesterlund concluded that the gap could be explained by differences in the way that boys and girls react to competitive test-taking environments, rather than inherent differences in math skills. Vesterlund used these results as part of her career-long effort to encourage women to embrace competitive environments.

Professor Andreas Blume’s research tries to identify and understand circumstances in which individuals use intentionally vague language. These circumstances include everything from business contracts to casual conversation. London’s Financial Times says Blume’s work “lurks on the boundary between philosophy and mathematics.”

John Duffy, professor and director of the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Lab, designs experiments to test how deeply individuals think about how other people will behave before they invest in financial markets. (His answer: not very deeply.)

With all of this research, plus several new faculty members contributing to Pitt’s work in experimental economics, Carlyle’s phrase is dismally outdated.