Experimental sociology of norms and decision-making

The discipline of experimental economics is now a familiar one. It is a field that attempts to probe and test the behavioral assumptions of the theory of economic rationality, microeconomics, and game theory. How do real human reasoners deliberate and act in classic circumstances of economic decision-making? John Kagel and Alvin Roth provide an excellent overview of the discipline in The Handbook of Experimental Economics, where they identify key areas of research in expected utility theory, game theory, free-riding and public goods theory, bargaining theory, and auction markets.

Behavioral economics is a related field but is generally understood as having a broader definition of subject matter. It is the discipline in which researchers use the findings of psychology, cognitive science, cultural studies, and other areas of behavioral sciences to address issues of economics, without making the heroic assumptions of strict economic rationality concerning the behavior and choices of the agents. The iconoclastic writings of Kahneman and Tversky are foundational contributions to the field (Choices, Values, and Frames), and Richard Thaler’s work (Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health and Wealth, and Happiness and Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics) exemplifies the approach.

Here is a useful description of behavioral and experimental economics offered by Ana Santos:

Behavioural experiments have produced a substantial amount of evidence that shows that human beings are prone to systematic error even in areas of economic relevance where stakes are high (e.g. Thaler, 1992; Camerer, 1995). Rather than grounding individual choice on the calculus of the costs and benefits of alternative options so as to choose the alternative that provides the highest net benefit, individuals have recourse to a variety of decisional rules and are influenced by various contextual factors that jeopardise the pursuit of individuals’ best interests. The increased understanding of how people actually select and apply rules for dealing with particular forms of decision problems and of the influence of contexts on individual choices is the starting point of choice architecture devoted to the study of choice setups that can curb human idiosyncrasies to good result, as judged by individuals themselves, or by society as a whole (Thaler and Sunstein, 2003, 2008).

Researchers in experimental and behavioral economics make use of a variety of empirical and “experimental” methods to probe the nature of real human decision-making. But the experiments in question are generally of a very specialized kind. The goal is often to determine the characteristics of the decision rule that is used by a group of actual human decision-makers. So the subjects are asked to “play” a game in which the payoffs correspond to one of the simple games studied in game theory — e.g. the prisoners’ dilemma — and their behavior is observed from start to finish. This seems to be more a form of controlled observation than experimentation in the classical sense — isolating an experimental situation and a given variable of interest F, and then running the experiment in the presence and absence of F.

It is intriguing to ask whether a similar empirical approach might be applied to some of the findings and premises of micro-sociology. Sociologists too make assumptions about motivation, choice, and action. Whether we consider the sociology of contention, the sociology of race, or the sociology of the family, we are unavoidably drawn to making provisional assumptions about what makes the actors in these situations tick. What are their motives? How do they evaluate the facts of a situation? How do they measure and weigh risk in the actions they choose? How do ambient social norms influence their action? Whether explicitly or implicitly, sociologists make assumptions about the answers to questions like these. Could some of the theoretical ideas of James Coleman, Erving Goffman, or Mark Granovetter be subjected to experimental investigation? Even more intriguingly, are there supra-individual hypotheses offered by sociologists that might be explored with experimental methods?

Areas where experimental and empirical investigation might be expected to pay dividends in sociology include the motivations underlying cooperation and competition, Granovetter’s sociology of social embeddedness, corruption, the theories of conditional altruism and conditional fairness, the dynamics of contention, and the micro-social psychology of race and gender.

So is there an existing field of research that attempts to investigate questions like these using experiments and human subjects placed in artificial circumstances of action?

To begin, there are some famous examples of experiments in the behavioral sciences that are relevant to these questions. These include the Milgram experiment, the Stanford Prison experiment, and a variety of altruism experiments. These empirical research designs aim at probing the modes of behavior, norm observance, and decision-making that characterize real human beings in real circumstances.

Second, it is evident that the broad discipline of social psychology is highly relevant to this topic. For example, the study of “motivated reasoning” has come to play an important role within the discipline of social psychology (link).

Motivated reasoning has become a central theoretical concept in academic discourse across the fields of psychology, political science, and mass communication. Further, it has also entered the popular lexicon as a label for the seemingly limitless power of partisanship and prior beliefs to color and distort perceptions of the political and social world. Since its emergence in the psychological literature in the mid- to late-20th century, motivated reasoning theory has been continuously elaborated but also challenged by researchers working across academic fields. In broad terms, motivated reasoning theory suggests that reasoning processes (information selection and evaluation, memory encoding, attitude formation, judgment, and decision-making) are influenced by motivations or goals. Motivations are desired end-states that individuals want to achieve. The number of these goals that have been theorized is numerous, but political scientists have focused principally on two broad categories of motivations: accuracy motivations (the desire to be “right” or “correct”) and directional or defensive motivations (the desire to protect or bolster a predetermined attitude or identity). While much research documents the effects of motivations for attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge, a growing literature highlights individual-level variables and contexts that moderate motivated reasoning.

See Epley and Gilovich (link) for an interesting application of the “motivated reasoning” approach.

Finally, some of the results of behavioral and experimental economics are relevant to sociology and political science as well.

These ideas are largely organized around testing the behavioral assumptions of various sociological theories. Another line of research that can be treated experimentally is the investigation of locally relevant structural arrangements that some sociologists have argued to be causally relevant to certain kinds of social outcomes. Public schools with health clinics have been hypothesized to have better educational outcomes than those without such clinics. Factory workers are sometimes thought to be more readily mobilized in labor organizations than office workers. Small towns in rural settings are sometimes thought to be especially conducive to nationalist-populist political mobilization. And so forth. Each of these hypotheses about the causal role of social structures can be investigated empirically and experimentally (though often the experiments take the form of quasi-experiments or field experiments rather than randomly assigned subjects divided into treatment and control populations).

It seems, then, that the methods and perspective of behavioral and experimental economics are indeed relevant to sociological research. Some of the premises of key sociological theories can be investigated experimentally, and doing so has the promise of further assessing and deepening the content of those sociological theories. Experiments can help to probe the forms of knowledge-formation, norm acquisition, and decision-making that real social actors experience. And with a little ingenuity, it seems possible to use experimental methods to evaluate some core hypotheses about the causal roles played by various kinds of “micro-” social structures.