Tag: rational choice

Pragmatism and Game Theory, Part 1

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eric Grynaviski, who is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. 

The recurring debate on this blog has centered on some of the bigger themes about the relationship between rational choice theory and game theory. I argued in an earlier post that when one focuses in on the specific logic of rational choice theory and/or game theory, getting away from its abstract characterizations, there are some similarities about the way it understands society with alternative approaches.

In this post, I want to focus on a more specific issue, which is how to understand the relationship between pragmatism and rational choice theory. Pragmatism has recently been used in IR in two ways. On the one hand, pragmatism has been invoked to justify a particular image of science, usually (but not always) one that is post-paradigmatic or pluralistic. Others have concentrated on the pragmatist contributions to IR theory or ethics.

This post concentrates on pragmatism as social theory. The early pragmatists—Dewey and Mead in particular—were very interested in questions such as logics of action that are at the heart of modern-day IR theory. I want to argue that there are a lot of similarities between pragmatism and rational choice theory, providing at least one via media between sociological and economic approaches that has been unexplored to date.Untitled

There are significant differences though between the ways rational choice theory and pragmatism tend to model learning and reasoning. The nub of the problem that this post concentrates on is uncertainty. Rational choice theorists tend to describe some set of possible worlds (a state space) over which agents assign probabilities. Reasoning and learning usually involves agents changing those probabilities in response to new information. Pragmatists tend to be interested in why possibilities become possible or become impossible; they are interested in how states enter and leave the state space and not how probabilities are assigned.

This post concentrates on two issues. Conceptually, is a rational model of action compatible with a pragmatist theory of action? And second, what are the differences in their treatments of certainty. Continue reading


Should We Keep Hidden the Way People Behave When their Actions are Hidden?

In his most recent post, PTJ argues that “things like Freakonomics are basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable”.  While he repeats in that post (and the comments section) a number of dubious claims about what sorts of behavior are possible within a decision-theoretic framework, I think we’re past the point in the conversation where it is useful to argue about the possibility of writing down a decision-theoretic model whose actors are capable of moral behavior and belonging to communities.1 In this post, I’d like to discuss the moral argument PTJ makes against decision-theoretic work.

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The Society of Individuals

Although I have made many of the points I am about to make in comments posted on Phil’s and Eric’s posts about rational choice theory over the past week, what I want to do at this point is to pull the whole thing together and make clear just why I still maintain that rational choice theory — and indeed, the broader decision-theoretical world of which rational choice theory constitutes just a particular, heavily-mathematized province — endorses and naturalizes a form of selfishness that is ultimately corrosive of human community and detrimental to the very idea of moral action. This is not a social-scientific criticism, and has nothing to do with the explanatory power of decision-theoretic accounts. I am not suggesting that there are empirical phenomena that for some intrinsic reason can’t be accounted for in decision-theoretic terms; indeed, given a sufficiently clever decision theorist, armed with game theory on the one hand and some individual psychology on the other, I think it likely that everything of interest (except, as Phil and I acknowledge, fundamental changes in the constitution of actors themselves — this is his “paintbrush” point) could be explained decision-theoretically.

My point — my plea — is that it shouldn’t be. The “model of man” (sexism in original, and that’s almost certainly important…) at the heart of decision-theoretic accounts begins, as a matter of assumption, with individuals isolated from one another in a deep ontological sense. Such individuals can’t engage in moral action; the best they can do is to act in ways that happen to correspond with moral codes. Such individuals can’t make commitments to one another; the best they can do is associate and interact with one another as long as there are more benefits from doing so than from striking off in another direction. And such individuals can’t actually be members of communities, since their place in any given community is only ever contingent on factors over which they exercise no influence: namely, the strategic environment and their own preferences. Deploying explanatory models and theories that stem from such a notion of the human person, even though this is an ideal-type rather than an actual description or an explicit normative recommendation, reinforces the notion that this is how people are and should be, and that the most they can do is form, in Norbert Elias’ apt phrase, a “society of individuals.” In my view, reducing social outcomes to individual decisions is thus problematic for ethical, rather than explanatory, reasons. Continue reading


The Relational Sociology of Rational-Choice Theory

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eric Grynaviski, who is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. 

There has been a debate on the Duck lately about the meaning of rational choice theory and game theory, and how it’s different from varied alternative approaches (here, here, and here). I wanted to offer a different interpretation than Arena and Jackson. Both give pretty orthodox interpretations, where game theory treats human agents as economic agents interested in maximizing their utility. I wanted to offer a sociologically richer interpretation, concentrating on the idea of how agents react to strategic interdependence.

At the heart of the logic of n-person games is the idea that the best move I make can be affected by what others will do. This is the idea of strategic interdependence. Nexon writes about strategic interdependence that it’s no big deal:  “Strategically interdependent preferences of individual actors are not the same thing as a collection of relationally embedded actors.”

The way game theory deals with strategic interdependence gets us into relationally embedded actors. It is a really big deal sociologically speaking. Continue reading


A Certain Kind of Selfishness

This is more of a riff on Phil’s post from last week than a direct reply; the post that Dan and I wrote addresses more directly the issue of actor autonomy that we think Phil misunderstood us on we and Phil were clearly on different semantic pages, so I am not going to go back over that ground here. Instead — and since we all basically agree that rational choice theory, as a species of decision-theoretic analysis, is located someplace in the tension between self-action and inter-action — I want to pursue a more specific point, the criticism of decision-theoretic accounts on both social-scientific and ethical grounds. In terms of the former register, there are kinds of questions that decision-theoretic accounts are simply not adequate to help us address. In terms of the latter register, the naturalization of individual selfishness that is inherent to decision-theoretical accounts regardless of the preferences held by individual actors and how self-regarding or other-regarding they might be, provides an important avenue on which all such theories can be called into question.
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Actor Autonomy in Choice-Theoretic Accounts

Note: this post was co-written with PTJ. Apologies for the comparative lack of structure and the fact that it is a bit repetitive. Note also that it contains a link to a temporarily un-gated copy of Jackson and Nexon (1999). Thanks, SAGE!

In yesterday morning’s post, Phil writes:

One manifestation of this misunderstanding is that “rational choice” or “choice-theoretic” work is often said to favor the agency side of the structure-versus-agency debate.  See, for example, this recent post by Dan Nexon, or the paper it’s based on.  I don’t mean to single my Duck colleagues out, though — the notion that rational choice theorists aren’t particularly interested in structure is quite common.

But I never wrote that “rational choice [sic] theorists aren’t particularly interested in structure.” Rather, we wrote that “choice-theoretic approaches tend to treat actors as autonomous from their environments at the moment of interaction, not so experience-near and social-relational alternatives [emphasis added].” This is a very different claim. Continue reading


Regional Variation in the Explanatory Power of War and Reason

Many conversations about the empirical relevance of game-theoretic models of war begin and end with Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman’s War and Reason.  That’s unfortunate, but it’s not exactly surprising.  Most game-theoretic studies of war do not include any empirical analysis, whereas War and Reason offered a systematic analysis of European dyads.  The standards by which BdM and Lalman would have the predictions of the International Interactions Game (IIG) be judged are clear.

In the Behavioral Origins of War, Bennett and Stam seek to assess the relative explanatory power of all the major theoretical explanations for war, including the IIG.  Not only do Bennett and Stam report that other variables outperform those associated with the IIG, they assesses the model’s reliability across time and space.  They find that the variables associated with the IIG predict behavior in Europe reasonably well, the Middle East and Asia somewhat less so, and they provide a worse than useless account of conflict occurrence in the Americans and Sub-Saharan Africa.  That is, conflict occurs less often in these two regions when the IIG predicts war than when it does not.

Bennett and Stam interpret this as evidence that the IIG assumes distinctly Western preferences, and so it’s explanatory power is limited to Europe.  In fact, implicitly treating the IIG as representative of all of “rational choice”, they go so far as to conclude that “rational choice” is more applicable to the Western world.

That’s a bold claim.  It’s also one that many critics of “rational choice” will find intuitively appealing.  Of course rational choice only applies to the West, one might say.  (Especially if one conveniently overlooks the fact that one of the two problem regions is the Western hemisphere…which I thought was pretty Western.)  Game theory makes no allowance for the importance of honor, after all.** How could anyone even doubt Bennett and Stam when they say that regional variation in the explanatory power of the IIG demonstrates the importance of culture?

Well, there’s just one little problem — in order to infer that actors who do not behave according to the predictions of a particular game-theoretic model do or do not hold a given set preferences,*** we have to assume that they were in fact playing precisely that game.  In other words, to infer that culture accounts for the IIG’s shortcomings, we have to make heroic assumptions about the applicability of the IIG.  Something of a contradiction, wouldn’t you agree?

The critical question then is whether there is reason to believe that leaders in the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa are playing a different game than European (and Middle Eastern and Asian) leaders.  I think there is.

For all the talk of the importance of domestic politics in War and Reason, the IIG still treats states as unitary actors.  BdM and Lalman simply assume that leaders of democracies will value certain outcomes more or less than leaders of other regimes.  No meaningful decisions made by actors within the state.  The possibility of civil violence is assumed away.  That’s not problematic in and of itself, but it tells us something about what we can and cannot infer from Bennett and Stam’s results.

The following graph (click for larger image) displays the relative rate of civil and interstate war by region, as indicated by the latest release of the Correlates of War data set.  Each bar depicts the number of wars of each type fought in each region as a proportion of the number fought in the region most prone to that type of war.

Notice that the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa, the two regions that most defy the expectations of the IIG, have experienced fewer than half as many interstate wars as Europe.  Though each region has seen a roughly similar number of civil wars between 1816 and 2007, the risk of civil war far exceeds that of interstate war in the Americas and in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, leaders have historically faced threats both foreign and domestic.  Granted, we’re speaking in sweeping generalities here — there is significant variation within each of these regions that we’re overlooking.  There’s also significant variation over time that we’re ignoring.  But if we’re going to generalize about entire regions, it makes more sense to conclude that the reason why the model developed in War and Reason fits Europe better than other parts of the globe is because it focuses exclusively on international interactions than because it fails to account for cultural differences in preferences.  That’s not to deny that culture is important.  It is.  But until we know more about the observable implications of game-theoretic models in which actors simultaneously face some risk of both civil and international conflict, we won’t really know how much of the discrepancy between our theoretical expectations and our empirical observations owes to culture.

I know a few people working on such models.  In future posts, I’ll discuss some of their work.


*However, see here.

**This claim is patently false, but we all know that the existence of game theoretic models that account for [x] is not a sufficient condition for preventing people from claiming that game theory does not or cannot account for [x].

***To their credit, Bennett and Stam do not entertain the notion that non-Western actors are less rational than their European counterparts.  I have heard others interpret their results in this way, and one need not be a rational choice apologist to find such claims to be both offensive and disturbing, but Bennett and Stam only argue that non-Western actors hold different preferences.


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