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Gender Generosity

Maybe economics, often labeled the "dismal science," is livelier than you think.

There's a relatively young wing of economics that doesn't just, say, measure an economy, determine whether it is growing or shrinking, and try to explain why. Proponents of the new "economic science," a few hundred in number, conduct real experiments, much like natural scientists.

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Some of their work can be important. For example, one pioneer in this field helped conduct experiments to determine what would be the most lucrative way for the federal government to auction off its microwave communication spectrum. The method devised was wildly successful. The auction brought in billions of dollars, far more than ever imagined.

One recent economic experiment caught our eye. The topic: Who's less selfish: women or men? The experiment-based answer - women - may be no surprise. Think of mothers' sacrifices on behalf of their children.

Here's how economists Catherine Eckel, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, and Philip Grossman, University of Texas at Arlington, tested this, as reported in the London-based Economic Journal:

They gave groups of students envelopes containing 10 $1 bills and 10 blank slips of paper. Five groups were men, five were women.

Each group was then asked, privately, to take 10 units - any combination of dollar bills and blanks - seal them in another envelope, and drop it in a box. They were told the envelopes would be given to anonymous recipients. Participants could keep what they didn't put in the envelope.

The women gave twice as much (average, $1.60) as the men (82 cents). A more recent experiment, with donations going to the American Red Cross, brought similar results.

Why this outcome? Would it occur in all age groups? All income levels? Different societies? The experiment offers no answer, says Professor Eckel. But the results should spark some interesting discussion.