PURPOSE: The conventional wisdom in dental and medical education is that dental and medical students experience "ethical erosion" over the duration of dental and medical school. There is some evidence for this claim, but in the case of dental education this evidence consists entirely of survey research, which doesn't measure behavior. The purpose of this study was to measure the altruistic behavior of dental students, in order to fill the significant gap in knowledge of how students are disposed to behave, rather than how they are disposed to think.
METHODS: To test the altruistic behavior of dental students, we conducted a field experiment using the Ultimatum Game, which is a game commonly used in economics to observe social behavior. Students from each of the four years of dental school played the game in standardized conditions with real money.
RESULTS: Students exhibited greater levels of altruism than the general population typically does. Students' altruism peaked in year four. Students' altruism was associated with the socioeconomic status of responder.
CONCLUSION: The results suggest that that dental students are more altruistic than the population average and that altruism increases during their education. Thus, if a decreasing ability to behave altruistically is observed during dental school, it is not likely due to a general disposition of students, but rather some factor specific to the educational environment in which the decrease is observed.