Up close with Economics Professor Martin Abel


When should you get your first dog? When’s the right time to get married? And what on Earth should you major in? The study of economics can address all of these questions, according to Assistant Professor of Economics Martin Abel.

“In the study of economics, we think a lot about incentives and constraints: What’s the optimal choice and behavior given the constraints? You can apply this to all types of questions,” said Abel, who has been at Middlebury College since completing his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 2017.

Growing up on a farm in a poor working class family, Abel was one of eight siblings. As a child, he was surrounded by a negative perception of academics, often hearing that his academic pursuits were impractical and unrealistic. Despite these criticisms, however, he became a first-generation college student and received a Ph.D. from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Abel’s passion for economics is grounded in the discipline’s rigorous and mathematical-centered approach to analyzing problems.

“The approach of modeling individual behavior that can be applied to different contexts in combination with empirical methods is what I find very intriguing about economics,” he said. 

His research about gender discrimination in the workforce was recently cited in the article, “Why are workers more resentful of criticism when the boss is a woman?” in Quartz, a leading digital publication that focuses on business and the economy. Abel’s research, which applies an economics approach, demonstrates that both female and male workers may respond more negatively to criticism from female managers than to those from male managers. 

Simultaneously, Abel’s research takes the psychological perspective into account. He found that criticism from female managers can come as more of a surprise, because female managers are generally associated with praise instead of criticism. Abel wrote in his paper, titled “Do Workers Discriminate against Female Bosses?” that, “while there are no differences in gendered expectations for praise across worker gender, the association of criticism with male managers is larger among male workers, especially with regard to having strict standards.”

Some of the motivation behind this research topic is personal.

“I have two young daughters,” Abel said with a smile. “While everyone should care about gender equality, I now think more about these issues and what kind of world my daughters grow up in.” 

Abel has worked with the Saudi Arabian and South African governments to improve job opportunities for women and young people.

Advice for students considering economics

Abel recommended that students consider what type of academic approach is more appealing and intuitive to them when solving problems. Since every discipline has a distinguished methodology, understanding the approach economists take is critical for a student who might be interested in entering the field. Economists in particular, he said, model behaviors mathematically to elucidate general lessons instead of focusing on the nuances around individual behaviors, like in other social sciences. 

For example, in cases of discrimination, the methodology of sociology and anthropology often involves examining data in depth through qualitative work, spending time observing people and looking at individual cases. General lessons are then drawn out through analysis of these complex data. 

“In economics, we tend to look for and collect more aggregate data, which we think helps to learn more general insights,” Abel said. “But it might capture fewer nuances and should thus be seen as complementary to other disciplines like anthropology.” 

When asked about his advice for students who are trying to figure out their paths, Abel encouraged, “Try to think about what you enjoy reading, what excites you.” 

These are often indicators of our greater interests, Abel said. Furthermore, if students want to do research, which requires a great amount of reading, interest in the topic is helpful for work in the long run. 

Before you sign that major declaration form

“Look beyond the core courses into the higher-level classes,” Abel said, suggesting that students sometimes form the wrong impressions of the Economics Department when they start with core courses like Statistics or Intro Microeconomics. However, most of these classes provide the tools for analyzing problems in the upper-level classes that truly reflect what the study of economics is. 

Middlebury’s Economics Department also offers courses studying social issues, like Economics of Discrimination, Environmental Economics, and Inequality and Injustice — all of which will be offered in the upcoming spring semester.

Previously, many economics models relied on mathematical evaluations to predict individual behavior. By incorporating insights from psychology, behavioral economics demonstrates that people do not always make decisions based on what is rational, but are instead often influenced by emotions and innate bias. Expanding upon previous economic models that rely only on mathematical evaluations, this field opens up opportunities to study problems — and ourselves — more comprehensively than ever before.