• Call for Social Sciences Papers
  • Sign-up for PNAS eTOC Alerts

Social preferences of future physicians

  1. Shachar Karivc,1,2
  1. aDepartment of Healthcare Policy and Research, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, NY 10065;
  2. bSchool of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720;
  3. cDepartment of Economics, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720
  1. Edited by Eric S. Maskin, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and approved September 25, 2017 (received for review April 5, 2017)


This paper advances scientific understanding of social preference—a topic of longstanding cross-disciplinary interest—by studying the preferences of future physicians. In making treatment decisions, physicians make fundamental tradeoffs between their own (financial) self-interest, patient benefit, and stewardship of social resources. These tradeoffs affect patient health, adoption of new scientific medical technologies, and the equity and efficiency of our health care system. Understanding physicians’ decisions about these tradeoffs requires understanding the social preferences that are behind them. Our main finding that future physicians are substantially less altruistic and more efficiency focused than the average American challenges notions of physician altruism, the fundamental feature of medical professionalism, and has potential implications for policy in a host of health care areas.


We measure the social preferences of a sample of US medical students and compare their preferences with those of the general population sampled in the American Life Panel (ALP). We also compare the medical students with a subsample of highly educated, wealthy ALP subjects as well as elite law school students and undergraduate students. We further associate the heterogeneity in social preferences within medical students to the tier ranking of their medical schools and their expected specialty choice. Our experimental design allows us to rigorously distinguish altruism from preferences regarding equality–efficiency tradeoffs and accurately measure both at the individual level rather than pooling data or assuming homogeneity across subjects. This is particularly informative, because the subjects in our sample display widely heterogeneous social preferences in terms of both their altruism and equality–efficiency tradeoffs. We find that medical students are substantially less altruistic and more efficiency focused than the average American. Furthermore, medical students attending the top-ranked medical schools are less altruistic than those attending lower-ranked schools. We further show that the social preferences of those attending top-ranked medical schools are statistically indistinguishable from the preferences of a sample of elite law school students. The key limitation of this study is that our experimental measures of social preferences have not yet been externally validated against actual physician practice behaviors. Pending this future research, we probed the predictive validity of our experimental measures of social preferences by showing that the medical students choosing higher-paying medical specialties are less altruistic than those choosing lower-paying specialties.


  • ?1W.H.D. and S.K. contributed equally to this work.

  • ?2To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: kariv{at}berkeley.edu.

Online Impact

                                      1. 99132880 2018-01-23
                                      2. 802899879 2018-01-23
                                      3. 295573878 2018-01-23
                                      4. 352668877 2018-01-23
                                      5. 984633876 2018-01-23
                                      6. 545928875 2018-01-23
                                      7. 976569874 2018-01-23
                                      8. 871324873 2018-01-23
                                      9. 263462872 2018-01-23
                                      10. 577161871 2018-01-23
                                      11. 255603870 2018-01-23
                                      12. 117346869 2018-01-23
                                      13. 90982868 2018-01-23
                                      14. 663415867 2018-01-23
                                      15. 793874866 2018-01-23
                                      16. 843582865 2018-01-23
                                      17. 864971864 2018-01-22
                                      18. 258841863 2018-01-22
                                      19. 957295862 2018-01-22
                                      20. 553518861 2018-01-22