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Trustee Scholar Katharine Wolchik ’05 (Randolph, N.J.) never imagined that economics theories could be used to explain why people behave the way they do. But over the summer, she used the repeated prisoners dilemma game theory, which is rooted in evolutionary economics, to help predict when people might cooperate with one another or act independently in an effort to achieve success.

Guided by Christopher Ruebeck, assistant professor of economics and business, Wolchik wanted to investigate whether people who always cooperate with others were ultimately more successful than those who acted more independently.

While the project is a work in progress — they are continuing the research this fall — Ruebeck says the research is paving the way for how economists predict human behavior.

Wolchik, who is pursuing a B.S. in mathematics and an A.B. with a major in economics & business, worked with Ruebeck through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

“We’re looking at people’s decisions to either cooperate with each other or take advantage of one another,” Ruebeck says. “And we’re also looking at how people might imitate other people.”

For instance, Ruebeck says it might seem obvious that people who work together achieve a greater good. But success-hungry individuals might only cooperate with someone because they want to increase their personal level of success — whether they genuinely like the person has little to do with how they act.

“What generally happens is that we find that there’s a strategy called ‘tit for tat’ – if you’re nice to me, I’m nice to you, or if you’re mean to me, I’m mean to you,” Ruebeck says.

Beyond a basic look into cooperative, independent or imitative behavior, Wolchik and Ruebeck added several other strategies for achieving success.

“With adding the new strategies, it changes the outcome of the game,” Wolchik says.

Some of those strategies included cooperating all the time, acting alone all the time, cooperating some of the time and imitating other times, acting alone some of the time and imitating other times, and so on.

Assigning each part of the strategy a different value, they used the computer program Mathematica to calculate complex equations and determine which strategy had a higher payoff, or was more successful, Wolchik says.

By adding random strategies, such as components of punctuality or responsibility, into the equations, straight imitators weren’t the only winners of the prisoners dilemma game.

“We found that adding randomness back in would bring back cooperation in most situations,” Ruebeck says.

In their continuation of the research this semester, they added 26 different strategies into the equation.

“We hope it will lead to a more general theory,” he explains. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh wait, let’s have 50 strategies, then 100’, we hope to notice some regularity in the results that say something about any combinations of strategies or many different combinations of strategies.”

One of the main things that Wolchik has gained from her experience is familiarity with a complex software program.

“I really didn’t know how to use the program Mathematica prior to this summer,” she says. “The math tool is almost like a computer programming language. You can tell this program to do something an infinite number of times and it reduces the tedious math you would have to do with pen and paper. Now I’m using the program to work on my senior thesis.”

Wolchik also conducted EXCEL research last spring with Susan Averett, professor of economics and business, to study abstinence education in the United States over a 10-year period. She obtained information from ten states that kept year-to-year records on abstinence education from 1987-97.

“Between the 1980s and 1990s, there was a change in policy across the nation regarding teaching abstinence as opposed to providing contraceptives for teenagers,” says Wolchik, whose main task was to collect the data that Averett and her colleagues would later analyze.

The study examined the birth rates among teens before and after abstinence education was implemented in an effort to determine whether it has been effective.

“The question is whether or not it has been a sound policy,” she says. “That is something we hope to study over a long period of time and Kathy provided the raw data which will be the basis of the study.”

Wolchik is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa, mathematics, and calculus academic honor societies, as well as the French Club. She helps students through the Calculus Calvary, tutors chemistry and calculus students, and volunteers for Parents Weekend and Shawnee Success, providing academic assistance during homework sessions to students in seventh and eighth grades. Last fall she participated in the Fed Challenge, an academic competition based on the operations of the Federal Reserve Bank. She also plays on the club soccer team.

During the January 2004 interim session, she took part in an externship with Angela DiChiara Garofalo ’82 of Untracht Early & Associates, LLC. Externships allow students to observe work practices, learn about careers they may consider entering after college, and develop professional networking contacts with Lafayette alumni and other experienced professionals.

Selected from among Lafayette’s top applicants, Trustee Scholars such as Wolchik have distinguished themselves through exceptional academic achievement in high school. They receive from Lafayette an annual minimum scholarship of $7,500 (totaling $30,000 over four years) or a grant in the full amount of their demonstrated need if the need is more than $7,500.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News