Social behavior and the covid pandemic

Anyone who thinks that the social world is orderly and predictable needs to reflect carefully on the way the covid pandemic has played out in the United States and many other countries. For political scientists who are partial to rational-choice explanations of individual behavior — you’ll need to think again. No theory of rationality or rational self-interest I can think of would explain massive anti-vaccination activism. It is plain from the statistics of infection rates, hospital rates, and death rates, that a population that is slow to accept a high percentage of vaccination is a population that is likely to wind up in covid catastrophe. A family that rejects vaccination is likely to suffer serious illness and runs a risky likelihood of hospitalization and death. And an individual who rejects vaccination and goes off on his Harley to Sturgis, South Dakota is flirting with illness and the possibility of hospitalization and death as well. So why would a rational or sensible person make that decision? This isn’t quantum mechanics and high-flying scientific theory; epidemiology is an observational science, and its premises and reasoning can be followed by anyone with a high school education. And the germ theory of infectious disease is one of the most important achievements of medical science — and has been for a century and a half. Would the same anti-vax activist walk into a Chernobyl reactor on April 26, 1986, because he doesn’t believe in radiation, or doesn’t believe that exposure to radiation causes illness and death? So — irrational behavior on a massive scale. Are we in a Salem moment, a period of mass hysteria? Why are so many people behaving in ways that are objectively contrary to their most important interests?

The too-obvious answer is that “some people have been indoctrinated by anti-science propaganda and lies, and have come to believe that covid is a hoax and the vaccines are dangerous and useless”. And in fact, we know that very extensive social media and right-wing media outlets have promulgated exactly those messages — including pervasive Facebook and Youtube channels. But why would perhaps 35-40% of American adults fall for such obvious baloney?

The second too-obvious answer is that Trump and the extreme right — i.e., most of the GOP — found it to their political advantage to encourage belief in these lies. To support Trumpism in the past year is to be a vaccine skeptic and a covid skeptic. The core of Trump’s supporters fall in line in accepting conspiracies and lies — about covid, about the 2020 election, and about Democrats, and GOP leaders have been willing to work to energize and extend this group. This is “extremist populism” and opportunism at its purest — promote the lies even if it means illness and death for school children, neighbors, and family members. This puts the current realities of social behavior around covid into a different light, and one that is a bit more amenable to rational-choice treatment: the strategy is a rational one for the demagogues who are pushing it, but completely irrational for the followers. The political emotions and ideologies of the followers, shaped by social media, lead them to make life choices that put them and their communities at terrible risk.

But here’s the thing: what 2010-era sociologist or political scientist would have predicted that a major global pandemic would occur in the next several decades, that an almost miraculous search for an effective vaccine would be successful in an amazingly short period — and that the pandemic and vaccine would become a political issue leading to mass refusal to vaccinate? All global epidemiologists believed the first proposition — that pandemic would occur sometime; some biological researchers thought that vaccine creation could advance quickly; but I can’t think of any respected political scientist or sociologist who would have predicted the massive movement that has emerged against vaccination and the politicization of the spread of the virus. 

This seems to be a good example of “path-dependence” in history. This public health catastrophe we now face could have unfolded differently in the United States. There were GOP leaders in 2019 and 2020 when the virus was first perceived as a major threat to US public health who pursued a science-driven set of policies. But the extremism of Donald Trump and his followers made a science-based approach to public policy and public health untenable for most GOP governors and legislators. (Even today we hear of death threats against public health professionals who argue for a mask mandate in public schools as they re-open this fall.) 

If our current situation was path-dependent, then what events led us here? We could probably identify two or three key factors in 2019 and 2020 that pushed the US population off the path of “sane public health thinking” and onto the QAnon path of lies, doubt, and conspiracy theories — the persistent efforts by the Trump administration to minimize and trivialize the virus (and to attribute it to China); the onslaught of organized social media campaigns to the same effect; and an existing baseline of mistrust and disdain for the Federal government (e.g. Ammon Bundy’s takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2018).

Above I asked whether a vaccine skeptic might have walked into Chernobyl reactor in 1986 because she didn’t believe in radiation sickness. In a way, the example might be more illuminating than was first evident. A viral epidemic — even a highly deadly one — is not like an open reactor core. Everyone who is exposed to radiation levels found in the exploded Chernobyl reactor core will die, and will die in visibly horrible conditions. But even a highly contagious virus like the Delta variant of the covid virus is less visible than the glowing remnants of the Chernobyl fuel rods. Today the state of Florida has an extremely high incidence of new covid infections — 100.9 per 100,000 population. (Mississippi is even higher, at 114.1 per hundred thousand; whereas Michigan and Massachusetts are at about 19-20 per hundred thousand.) So Florida is a catastrophe. And yet the vast majority of Floridians do not often see the results of the pandemic on a daily basis. Only .1% of the population are infected each day; a tiny risk, one might say. Floridians see news reports about rising rates of infection and hospitals approaching full capacity, but these are just words in a torrent of media that they have come to mistrust. Further, they can also go to a bar or restaurant and not see anyone getting sick, and they may avoid infection themselves for months or years (through good luck or simple precautions). What is a catastrophe at the community level is invisible to the majority of Floridians — until their own parent, spouse, or child is infected. And then it is just “bad luck”. So most Floridians, most of the time, have a daily experience that seems to support the “no big deal” framework rather than the “rapidly spreading horrific disease” framework. But a viral epidemic is different from car crashes: more infected people leads to an even greater number of infected people in the next cycle. It is an exponential process. So it is urgent to take measures to reduce contagion at an early stage of the pandemic — which is precisely what many Red states have refused to do. 

Public health during pandemic is not an individual choice. A policy depending on “responsible choices” by individuals (concerning social distancing or masking, for example) is wholly inadequate to the problem. The slogan used by anti-maskers during current raging debates over mask requirements in public schools — “My child, my choice” — is absurd on its face. The unmasked child is a risk to others; so it is not simply a matter of personal choice — any more than would the choice of bringing bottles of gasoline to school be a matter of personal choice. And, further, one’s own child is dramatically less likely to become infected if other people’s children are masked. Public health requires rational standards of behavior and a high level of compliance. But in many GOP-ruled states, officials have refused to set such regulations. 

It seems, then, that American mass behavior during the past 12 months shows a very large dose of irrationality, and this level of irrationality is dangerous in the setting of a viral pandemic. And it did not have to be this way. If the vast majority of Americans were behaving intelligently with respect to their own health, they would be accepting the advice of scientific and health experts about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and they would be supporting the call for masking until the viral surge of infections falls to an acceptably low level. Each individual would be better off if he or she got vaccinated and wore a mask. And the same is true collectively: the whole community — whether Columbus, Ohio or Miami, Florida — is better off if the infection rate (R) is brought down below 1.0 and the hospital utilization rate is at a sustainable level. 

Further, the pandemic threatens public health in more ways than the possibility of acute respiratory illness for one individual. When hospital intensive care units fill up, they lose the capacity to treat acutely ill patients of every variety. By remaining unvaccinated, becoming ill, and winding up on a ventilator in an ICU, the individual has harmed her own health; but she has also made it more difficult for other members of the community to gain access to the intensive care that they need as well. Each Floridian is more likely to survive a serious auto accident or a heart attack if there is an ICU bed available to treat her — and this is a community-level fact. So whether we care primarily about our own health and the health of our families, or we care also about the wellbeing of our neighbors and fellow members of the community, sensible decision-making leads to sensible health behavior: vaccination, social distancing, and masking. The fact that 39% of the population in the US are still entirely unvaccinated (August 27) seems to document irrational personal choices on a massive scale. 

This seems to pose a very important and difficult problem for the social sciences. Is prudence such a weak influence on the typical person’s choices as it appears? Is there a kind of “crowd” behavior at work that makes individual prudence and rationality irrelevant — an echo chamber that makes independent thinking impossible? Is there some special difficulty in reasoning about an invisible diffuse risk like covid that is part of the problem? Are the avenues of social media messaging so powerful that large portions of the public lose their capacity for intelligent, sensible thought? What can we learn, in short, by studying the patterns of behavior that have emerged in the US over the past eighteen months? Are we living through a “natural experiment” in mass behavior when a population is faced with a novel and widespread threat?

Rational life plans and the stopping problem

Image: a poor solution to the stopping problem

In earlier posts I discussed the question of “rational plans of life” (linklinklinklink) and argued that standard theories of rational decision making under uncertainty don’t do well in this context. I argued instead that rationality in navigating and building a life is not analogous to remodeling your kitchen; instead, it involves provisional clarification of the goals and values that one embraces, and then a kind of step-by-step, self-critical direction-setting in the choices that one makes over time in ways that honor these values.

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions provides a very interesting additional perspective on this problem of living a life. The authors describe the algorithms that computer science has discovered to handle difficult choice problems, and they make an effort to both explain (generally) how the problem is solved formally and how it finds application in ordinary situations of human decision-making over an extended time — such as the challenging question of where to stop for a meal on a long road trip, or which candidate to hire as an executive assistant.

The key features of decision-making that drive much of their discussion are time and uncertainty. We often have to make decisions and choices among options where we do not know the qualities of the items on offer (restaurants to consider for a special meal, individuals who are prospective friends, who to hire for an important position), the likelihood of success of a given item, and where we often cannot return to a choice we’ve already rejected. (If we are driving between Youngstown and Buffalo there are only finitely many restaurants where we might stop for a meal; but once we’ve passed New Bangkok Restaurant at exit 50 on the interstate, we are unlikely to return when we haven’t found a better choice by exit 55.)

The stopping problem seems relevant to the problem of formulating a rational plan of life, since the stream of life events and choices in a person’s life is one-directional, and it is rare to be able to return to an option that was rejected at a prior moment. In hindsight — should I have gone to Harvard for graduate school, or would Cornell or Princeton have been a better choice? The question is literally pointless; it cannot be undone. Life, like history, proceeds in only one direction. Many life choices must be made before a full comparison of the quality of the options and the consequences of one choice or another can be fully known. And waiting until all options have been reviewed often means that the earlier options are no longer available — just like that Thai restaurant on the Ohio Turnpike at exit 50.

The algorithms that surround the stopping problem have a specific role in decision-making in ordinary life circumstances: we will make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty and irreversibility if we understand something about the probabilities of the idea that “a better option is still coming up”. We need to have some intuitive grasp of the dialectic of “exploration / exploitation” that the stopping problem endorses. As Christian and Griffiths put it, “exploration is gathering information, and exploitation is using the information you have to get a known good result” (32). How long should we continue to gather information (exploration) and at what point should we turn to active choice (“choose the next superior candidate that comes along”)? If a person navigates life by exploring 90% of options before choosing, he or she is likely to do worse than less conservative decision-makers; but likewise about the person who chooses after seeing 5% of the options.

There is a very noticeable convergence between the algorithms of stopping and Herbert Simon’s theory of satisficing (link). (The authors note this parallelSimon noted that the heroic assumptions of economic rationality are rarely satisfied in actual human decision-making: full information about the probabilities and utilities associated with a finite range of outcomes, and choice guided by choosing that option with the greatest expected utility. He notes that this view of rationality requires an unlimited budget for information gathering, and that — at some point — the cost of further search outweighs the probably gains of finding the optimal solution. Simon too argues that rational decision-makers “stop” in their choices: they set a threshold value for quality and value, initiate a search, and select the first option that meets the threshold. “Good enough” beats “best possible”. If I decide I need a pair of walking shoes, I decide on price and quality — less than $100, all leather, good tread, comfortable fit — and I visit a sequence of shoe stores, with the plan of buying the first pair of shoes that meets the threshold. But the advantage of the search algorithm described here is that it does not require a fixed threshold in advance, and it would appear to give a higher probability of making the best possible choice among all available options. As a speculative guess, it seems as though searches guided by a fixed threshold would score lower over time than searches guided by a balanced “explore, then exploit” strategy, without the latter being overwhelmed by information costs.

In one of the earlier posts on “rational life plans” I suggested that rationality comes into life-planning in several different ways:

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc. (link)

The algorithms of stopping are clearly relevant to the first part of the story — local action-rationality. It is not so clear that the stopping problem arises in the same way in the other two levels of life-planning rationality. Deliberation about longterm objectives is not sequential in the way that deciding about which highway exit to choose for supper is; rather, the deliberating individual can canvas a number of objectives simultaneously and make deliberative choices among them. And choosing medium-term strategies seems to have a similar temporal logic: identify a reasonable range of possible strategies, compare their strengths and weaknesses, and choose the best. So the stopping problem seems to be relevant to the implementation phase of living, not the planning and projecting parts. We don’t need the stopping algorithm to decide to visit the grandchildren in Scranton, or in deciding which route across the country to choose for the long drive; but we do need it for deciding the moment-to-moment options that arise — which hotel, which restaurant, which stretch of beach, which tourist attraction to visit along the way. This seems to amount to a conclusion: the stopping problem is relevant to a certain class of choices that come as an irreversible series, but not relevant to deliberation among principles, values, or guiding goals.

(Christian and Griffiths describe the results of research on the stopping problem; but the book does not give a clear description of how the math works. Here is a somewhat more detailed explanation of the solution to the stopping problem in American Scientistlink. Essentially the solution — wait and observe for the first 37% of options, then taken the next option better than any of those seen to date — follows from a calculation of the probability of the distribution of “best choices” across the random series of candidates. And it can be proven that both lower and higher thresholds — less exploration or more exploration — lead to lower average payoffs.)

Rational life plans

Aristotle, Kant, and Rawls agree: people ought to have rational plans of life to guide their everyday efforts and activities. But what is involved in being rational about one’s plan of life? And really, what is a plan of life? Is it a sketch of a lifetime goal, along with some indications of the efforts that are currently thought to lead to this goal? Is it a blueprint for organizing one’s thinking, actions, investments, time, resources, and character over time in order to bring about the intended goal? Or is it something more flexible that this? Did Walter White in Breaking Bad have a plan of life, either before and after his cancer diagnosis? Did Dostoevsky have a plan of life? How about Wagner or Whitman? Is it possible to be rational in making partial or full life plans? How have philosophers thought about this topic?

Planning means orchestrating one’s activities over time in such a way as to bring about good outcomes over the full period. When a person plans for a renovation of his/her home, he or she considers the reasons for considering the renovation; the results to be achieved; the enhancements that would contribute to those results; the resources that are necessary to fund those enhancements; the amount of time that will be required for each of the sub-tasks; and so forth. With a good plan and a good execution, it is likely that a good outcome will be achieved: an improved residence that was accomplished within the budgeted time and resources available.

A plan of life is something larger than a plan for a house renovation, though it has some aspects in common. John Rawls was the philosopher in recent times who brought this idea into serious attention. The concept plays a crucial role within his theory of justice in A Theory of Justice. (Perhaps Aristotle is the ancient philosopher who had the greatest interest in this idea.) Rawls introduces the idea in the context of his discussion of primary goods.

The main idea is that a person’s good is determined by what is for him the most rational long-term plan of life given reasonably favorable circumstances. A man is happy when he is more or less successfully [sic] in the way of carrying out this plan. To put it briefly, the good is the satisfaction of rational desire. We are to suppose, then, that each individual has a rational plan of life drawn up subject to the conditions that confront him. This plan is designed to permit the harmonious satisfaction of his interests. It schedules activities so that various desires can be fulfilled without interferences. It is arrived at by rejecting other plans that are either less likely to succeed or do not provide for such an inclusive attainment of aims. Given the alternatives available, a rational plan is one which cannot be improved upon; there is no other plan which, taking everything into account, would be preferable. (TJ 92-93)

Several things are noteworthy about this description. First, it involves scheduling activities so as to “harmoniously satisfy interests”, which is paraphrased as “fulfilling desires without interferences”. In other words, Rawls’s account of a plan of life is a fairly shallow one in terms of the assumptions it makes about the person. It takes desires as fixed and then “plans” around them to ensure their optimal satisfaction. But there are other things that we might want to include in a plan of life: choices about one’s enduring character, for example. And second, Rawls makes very heroic assumptions here by requiring that a rational plan of life is a uniquely best plan, an optimal plan, one which cannot be improved upon.

There is a very direct connection between planning and rationality. But, surprisingly, this connection has not been a strong topic of interest within philosophy. The most important exception is in the work of David Bratman, including his 1987 book, Intention, Plans and Practical Reason. Here are a few key ideas from Bratman’s book:

Our need for plans concerning the future is rooted in two very general needs. We are rational agents, to some extent. For us this means in part that deliberation and, more generally, rational reflection help shape what we do. If, however, our actions were influenced only by deliberation at the time of action, the influence of such deliberation would be rather minimal. This is so because deliberation requires time and other limited resources, and there is an obvious limit to the extent to which one may successfully deliberate at the time of action. 2 So we need ways to allow deliberation and rational reflection to influence action beyond the present.




Second, we have pressing needs for coordination. To achieve complex goals I must coordinate my present and future activities. And I need also to coordinate my activities with yours. Anyone who has managed to write a lecture, pick up a book at the library, attend a committee meeting, and then pick up a child at school will be familiar with the former type of intra personal coordination. And anyone who has managed to arrange and participate in a committee meeting with several colleagues will be familiar with the latter sort of inter personal coordination. Of course, as the examples make clear, we are typically in need of both sorts of coordination; for we are both temporally extended and social agents. And as we all learn to our chagrin, neither sort of coordination happens effortlessly.


We do not, of course, promote coordination and extend the influence of deliberation by means of plans that specify, once and for all, everything we are to do in the future. Such total plans are obviously beyond our limits. Rather, we typically settle on plans that are partial and then fill them in as need be and as time goes by. This characteristic incompleteness of our plans is of the first importance. It creates the need for a kind of reasoning characteristic of planning agents: reasoning that takes initial, partial plans as given and aims at filling them in with specifications of appropriate means, preliminary steps, or just relatively more specific courses of action. (section 1.1)

Here Bratman makes the connection between deliberation, intentions, and planning explicit: planning permits the coordination of one’s intentions over time. And in the final paragraph he correctly observes that there is no such thing as a complete plan for a topic; plans are created in order to be updated. (Notice, however, that this runs contrary to Rawls’s assumption quoted above.)

Jonathan Baron also gives some attention to the role of planning in deliberative reasoning in Rationality and Intelligence. Here is a statement from Baron:

A good definition of happiness … is the achievement of just these consequences, or, more precisely, the successful pursuit of a plan that is expected to lead to them …. If the world is at all predictable, rational plans and decisions will, on average, lead to better outcomes in this sense than will irrational ones. Luck, of course, may still intervene; a person might make the best decisions possible, but still be unhappy because things turned out badly. (RI 206)

There are several features of life that make it difficult to formulate a satisfactory theory of the formulation and assessment of rational life plans.

  • The extended timeframe of the planning problem: formulating a plan in one’s twenties that is intended to guide through the end of one’s life in his or her nineties. 
  • The fact of a person’s plasticity. Features of character, personality, habit, taste, and preference are all subject to a degree of purposive change. So it would seem that these should be the object of rational deliberative planning as well. But it is hard to see how to do this. 
  • The fact of the unpredictability of the external environment, both natural and social. 
  • The difficulty of designing a plan that is robust through dramatic change within the person.
  • The difficulty of incorporating possible future capabilities of changing the self and the body directly through genetic engineering.

These challenges make traditional rational-choice theory unpromising as a foundation for arriving at a theory of life planning. Traditional rational choice theory is designed around the assumption of exogenous and fixed preferences, the ability to assign utility to outcomes, and quantifiable knowledge of the likelihood of various outcomes. But the five factors mentioned here invalidate all these assumptions.

(Several earlier posts are relevant to this set of issues: link, link, link.)

Rationality over the long term

image: Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his students

Millions of words have been written on the topic of rationality in action. Life involves choices. How should we choose between available alternatives? Where should I go to college? Which job should I accept? Should I buy a house or rent an apartment? How much time should I give my job in preference to my family? We would like to have reasons for choosing A over B; we would like to approach these choices “rationally.”

These are all “one-off” choices, and rational choice theory has something like a formula to offer for the decider: gain the best knowledge available about the several courses of action; evaluate the costs, risks, and rewards of each alternative; and choose that alternative that produces the greatest expected level of satisfaction of your preferences. There are nuances to be decided, of course: should we go for “greatest expected utility” or should we protect against unlikely but terrible outcomes by using a maximin rule for deciding?

There are several deficiencies in this story. Most obviously, few of us actually go through the kinds of calculations specified here. We often act out of habit or semi-articulated rules of thumb. Moreover, we are often concerned about factors that don’t fit into the “preferences and beliefs” framework, like moral commitments, conceptions of ourselves, loyalties to others, and the like. Pragmatists would add that much mundane action flows from a combination of habit and creativity rather than formal calculation of costs and benefits.

But my concern here is larger. What is involved in being deliberative and purposive about extended stretches of time? How do we lay out the guideposts of a life plan? And what is involved in acting deliberatively and purposively in carrying out one’s life plan or other medium- and long-term goals?

Here I want to look more closely than usual at what is involved in reflecting on one’s purposes and values, formulating a plan for the medium or long term, and acting in the short term in ways that further the big plan. My topic is “rationality in action”, but I want to pay attention to the issues associated with large, extended purposes — not bounded decisions like buying a house, making a financial investment, or choosing a college. I’m thinking of larger subjects for deliberation — for example, conquering all of Europe (Napoleon), leading the United States through a war for the Union ( Lincoln), or becoming a committed and active anti-Nazi (Bonhoeffer).

The scale I’m focusing on here corresponds to questions like these:

  • How did Napoleon deliberate about his ambitions in 1789? How did he carry out his thoughts, goals, and plans?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln think about slavery and the Union in 1861? How did his conduct of politics and war take shape in relation to his long term goals?
  • How did Richard Rorty plan his career in the early years? How did his choices reflect those plans? (Neil Gross considers this question in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher; link.)
  • How did Dietrich Bonhoeffer deliberate about the choices in front of him in Germany in 1933? How did he decide to become an engaged anti-Nazi, at the eventual cost of his life?

What these examples have in common is large temporal scope; substantial uncertainties about the future; and extensive intertwining of moral and political values with more immediate concerns of self-interest, prudence, and desire. Moreover, the act of formulating plans on this scale and living them out is formative: we become different persons through these efforts.

The intriguing question for me at the moment is the issue of rational deliberation: to what extent and through what processes can individuals engage in a rational process in thinking through their decisions and plans at this level? Is it an expectation of rationality that an individual will have composed nested sets of plans and objectives, from the most global to the intermediate to the local?

Or instead, does a person’s journey through large events take its shape in a more stochastic way: opportunities, short term decisions, chance involvements, and some ongoing efforts to make sense of it all in the form of a developing narrative? Here we might say that life is not planned, but rather built like Neurath’s raft with materials at hand; and that rationality and deliberation come in only at a more local scale.

Here is a simple way of characterizing purposive action over a long and complex period. The actor has certain guiding goals he or she is trying to advance. It is possible to reflect upon these goals in depth and to consider their compatibility with other important considerations. This might be called “goal deliberation”. These goals and values serve as the guiding landmarks for the journey — “keep moving towards the tallest mountain on the horizon”. The actor surveys the medium-term environment for actions that are available to him or her, and the changes in the environment that may be looming in that period. And he or she composes a plan for these circumstances– “attempt to keep moderate Southern leaders from supporting cecession”. This is the stage of formulation of mid-range strategies and tactics, designed to move the overall purposes forward. Finally, like Odysseus, the actor seizes unforeseen opportunities of the moment in ways that appear to advance the cause even lacking a blueprint for how to proceed.

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc.

As biologists from Darwin to Dawkins have recognized, the process of species evolution through natural selection is inherently myopic. Long term intelligent action is not so, in that it is possible for intelligent actors to consider distant solutions that are potentially achievable through orchestrated series of actions — plans and strategies. But in order to achieve the benefits of intelligent longterm action, it is necessary to be intelligent at every stage — formulate good and appropriate distant goals, carefully assess the terrain of action to determine as well as possible what pathways exist to move toward those goals, and act in the moment in ways that are both intelligent solutions to immediate opportunities and obstacles, and have the discipline to forego short term gain in order to stay on the path to the long term goal. But, paradoxically, it may be possible to be locally rational at every step and yet globally irrational, in the sense that the series of rational choices lead to an outcome widely divergent from the overriding goals one has selected.

I’ve invoked a number of different ideas here, all contributing to the notion of rational action over an extended time: deliberation, purposiveness, reflection, calculation of consequences, intelligent problem solving, and rational choice among discrete alternatives. What is interesting to me is that each these activities is plainly relevant to the task of “rational action”; and yet none reduces to the other. In particular, rational choice theory cannot be construed as a general and complete answer to the question, “what is involved in acting rationally over the long term?”.

Michael Bratman is the philosopher who has thought about these issues the most deeply; Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Manuel Vargas and Gideon Yaffe’s recent festschrift on Bratman’s work, Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman, is also a useful contribution on the subject. Sarah Paul provides a nice review of Rational and Social Agency here.

Peggy Somers’ contribution to realism

Peggy Somers is an important contributor to the active field of sociological theory. And she identifies as a critical realist when it comes to understanding the logic and epistemology of the historical social sciences. Her views were extensively developed in “We’re no angels” (1998; link). The title picks up on the epistemology that she favors: non-perfectionist, anti-foundationalist, historically situated. In the essay she moves back and forth between post-Kuhnian philosophy of science and specific controversies in the methodology of the historical social sciences.

The essay takes its origin as a rebuttal to a critical review of the methodologies of historical sociology offered by Kiser and Hechter in “The role of general theory in comparative-historical sociology” (1991; link). A central target of Somers’ arguments here is the idea defended by Kiser and Hechter that rational choice theory is the preferred theoretical framework for historical social science. Somers believes — as do most historical sociologists — that rational choice theory (RCT) is a legitimate but partial contribution to a pluralistic approach to historical sociology. Emphatically, it is too narrow a basis for constructing explanations of important large-scale historical movements and outcomes. So RCT advocates like Kiser and Hechter make the mistake of “theoretical monism” — imagining that a single theoretical premise might be sufficient to explain a large, complex domain of social phenomena.

A key theme in Somers’ treatment here is a contrast among several kinds of realism. Here is Somers’ brief description:

All versions of realism accept that causal mechanisms—despite being unobservable—must be used as the basis of explanatory theoretical accounts; but only rational choice realism generates those mechanisms using on “ontic methodology” (Salmon 1984) in which the causal mechanisms of social explanation are postulated a priori from the same general theory that “guides” their research. (726)

And here are some key examples of what she means by causal mechanisms in the social world: “price mechanisms, maximizing preferences, class consciousness, value-driven intentionality, or domination” (726).

Somers identifies at least two kinds of realism — what she calls “theoretical realism” and “relational and pragmatic realism”. She favors the latter:

Relational realism posits that belief in the causal power of unobservables—such as states, markets, or social classes—does not depend on the rationality or truth of any given theory but upon practical evidence of its causal impact on the relationships in which it is embedded…. Relational realists believe that, while it is justifiable to theorize about unobservables, any particular theory entailing theoretical phenomena is historically provisional. For relational realism that means one can believe in the reality of a phenomenon without necessarily believing in the absolute truth or ultimate reality of any single theory that claims to explain it. (743-44)

And she believes that the two realisms have very different epistemological backgrounds — deductivist and pragmatist:

Where the two realisms differ, then, is that while theoretical realism attributes an ontological truth to the theoretical phenomenon (e.g., the theory of electrons or the theory of market equilibrium), relational realism focuses on the relational effect of the phenomenon itself (e.g., the impact of the hypothesized electron on its environment or of the hypothesized market forces on an observable outcome). (745)

The most basic criticism that Somers offers of Kiser and Hechter is their mono-theoretic deductivism — their claim that rigorous social science requires deductive derivation of a given social outcome from a theoretical premise. It is the theory that is at the heart of the explanation, according to this view of methodology. But for Somers — and in the relational, pragmatist version of realism that she favors — the ontology comes first. We may not know exactly what an electron is in detail; but we know the reality of electricity by the effects and causal properties we can probe practically and experimentally. This is the pragmatic aspect of her favored realism:

Social phenomena endure; but the “theoretical entities” that have purported to explain them are socially constructed—some more convincingly than others because they are more pragmatic and relational.

Somers faults what she calls theoretical realism for its commitment to explanation and confirmation through the hypothetic-deductive method. So what are the chief characteristics of her preferred alternative?

First, relational realism is “minimalist” —

[Relational realism is] minimalist because it recognizes that the partial concept- dependence of social life puts limits on the general realist premise of the absolute mind-independent status of the social world; yet realist nonetheless, in contrast to hermeneutics or radical constructivism in that some degree of concept-dependence does not in any way subvert the premise of a social world that exists independently of our beliefs about it. (766)

This amounts to an anti-foundationalist epistemology: we cannot establish the truth of all the premises and presuppositions of an explanation.

Second, relational realism is pluralistic; it encourages the discovery of multiple causal factors within a complex circumstance. This is in opposition to the theoretical monism of RCT supporters and is consistent with Robert Merton’s advocacy of a social science based on a search for theories of the middle range (link).

Third, relational realism is anti-essentialist; it recommends that the researcher should look at the social world as consisting of shifting configurations of social actors and institutions.

A relational ontology thus follows Popper’s rejection of essentialism and instead looks at the basic units of the social world as relational identities constituted in relational configurations. In place of a language of essences and inherent causal properties, a relational realism substitutes a language of networks and relationships that are not predetermined but made the indeterminate objects of investigation. (767)

An earlier post here raised a rather similar question about several kinds of realism, and the conclusions I reached were somewhat parallel as well. I offered support for scientific realism over critical realism. Here is the crucial passage:

So when we postulate that “class” is an important entity or structure in the modern world, our evidence for this claim is not largely based on inference to the best explanation and the overall success of class theory; it is instead the bundle of concrete researches that have been performed to identify, specify, and investigate the workings of class. Conceptual specification is more important that theoretical articulation and deduction: we need to know what a given researcher means to encompass in his or her use of the term “class structure”. To take the photo above of Eton boys as an example — what inferences can we draw about class from the photo? And what do we mean when we say that it illustrates an important social reality in the Britain of the 1930s, the reality of class? Is it a fact about attitudes; about the mechanisms of opportunity and selection; about the differential assignment of privilege; about modes of speech and thought?

My own philosophy of social science has several key features:

  1. I look at social science as inherently eclectic and pluralistic. There is no “best” method or “most fundamental” theory.
  2. I strongly suspect that social causation is fundamentally heterogeneous over multiple kinds of mechanisms and multiple temporalities. Outcomes are conjunctural, compositional, and contingent.
  3. I place a great deal of importance on empirical research and discovery. I am in that particular regard an enlightened “empiricist” about social and historical knowledge.
  4. I think there is an important place for theory and hypotheses in the social sciences. These need to be “theories of the middle range.”
  5. I take an actor-centered approach to social theorizing. The substrate of the social world is individuals doing and thinking a range of things in various social settings.
  6. I am realist about a raft of social things: institutions, practices, value communities, social networks. All these social entities and structures exist as embodied in the thinking and acting of the socially constructed individuals who make them up, but they often have persistent and knowable properties that do not call for reduction to the micro level.
  7. I am realist about social causation, and I understand causation in terms of mechanisms.
  8. I am realist about the causal properties of at least some social entities — structures, organizations, knowledge systems.
  9. I think ontology is important, but primarily at the level of the ontological assumptions implicated in various areas of scientific and historical research. Universal or philosophical ontology does not seem so important to me.

These commitments add up to a form of realism; but it isn’t critical realism in the technical or substantive senses. It is a realism of a different stripe — a pragmatic realism, a galilean realism, a scientific realism.

I wonder which of these premises Somers would endorse, and which she would criticize? I suspect that premise (5) will make her uneasy, given her desire to emphasize relationality in the social world; but that is certainly not ruled out in an actor-centered approach to social research. (This was also a contrast that Chuck Tilly drew between his approach to the social world and mine: “Dan, your approach is more individualistic than mine. I prefer to emphasize relations among the actors!”)

The domain of agent-based models

Agent-based modeling is an intriguing new set of tools for computational social science. The techniques permit us to project forward the system-level effects of a set of assumptions about agent behavior and a given environment. What kinds of real social phenomena are amenable to treatment by the techniques of agent-based modeling? David O’Sullivan and his co-authors offer an assessment of this question in their contribution to a valuable recent handbook, Heppenstall et al, Agent-Based Models of Geographical Systems. (Andrew Crooks and Alison Heppenstall provide a valuable and clear introduction to ABM methodology in their contribution to the volume.)

O’Sullivan and colleagues offer a basic taxonomy of different applications of ABM research.

— simple abstract models where the focus is on exploring the collective implications of individual-level decision making.
— more detailed [accounts that] locate virtual model agents in a representation of the real world setting of interest. Typically, such models operate at a regional or landscape scale
— some of the most ambitious models aim at detailed … representations of both the geographical setting and the processes unfolding in that setting (111-112)

This taxonomy depends on the degree of abstraction and realism that the model aspires to.

Here are a handful of research projects that are amenable to these techniques, most of which are illustrated in the Heppenstall volume.

— Land use patterns in peasant agriculture
— Residential patterns — urban and rural
— Patterns of burglaries
— Occurrence of interpersonal violence in civil war
— Traffic patterns — pedestrian and vehicular

What do the clear examples have in common? They are situations where a number of independent individuals react to a social and natural environment with a set of goals; and they are usually situations where individuals influence each other through their actions. These are situations of dynamic interactive choices. O’Sullivan and colleagues put these points this way:

We consider the most fundamental characteristics of agents in spatial models to be goal-direction and autonomy…. However, more specific definitions of the concept may add any of flexibility, ‘intelligence’, communication, learning, adaptation or a host of other features to these two. (115)

(Crooks and Heppenstall provide a similar list: autonomy, heterogeneity, and activity; 87.)

O’Sullivan et al also pose an important question about what the circumstances are where the features of agents makes a difference in the social outcome:

This argument focuses attention on three model features: heterogeneity of the decision-making context of agents, the importance of interaction effects , and the overall size and organization of the system. If agents are the same throughout the system, then, other things being equal, an aggregate approach is likely to capture the same signifi cant features of the system as an agent-based approach.

Essentially the point here is a simple one: if an aggregate outcome results from homogenous individuals making a decision about something on the same basis as everyone else, then we don’t need an agent-based model. ABM techniques become valuable when heterogeneous agents interact with each other to bring about novel outcomes.

There are quite a few social situations that do not fit the terms of these models well. Some social processes are not simply the aggregate outcome of choices by a set of independent autonomous agents. For example, the flow of work through an architectural design studio is determined by the rules of the firm, not the independent choices of the employees, and the behavior of an army is largely determined by its general staff and command structure. O’Sullivan et al put the point this way:

A more important question may be, “what should the agents in an ABM of this system represent?” If the interactions among individual actors in the real world are substantially channelled via institutions or other social or spatial structures, perhaps it is those institutions or social or spatial structures that should be represented as agents in an ABM rather than the individuals of which they are formed. (120)

So a general question for ABM methodology is this: where do structural social factors come into ABM models? Here I am thinking of things like a system of regulation and law; a pattern of racialized behavior; the architecture of the transport system; a tax system; …. We might treat these as parameters in the environment of choice for the agents. They are beyond the control of the agents and are regarded as constraints and opportunities. (This is one place where the framework of “strategic interactive fields” disagrees, since the SIF approach looks at institutions themselves as part of the field of strategic interaction in that individuals strive to modify the rules to their own benefit.)

It seems reasonable to judge that ABM techniques are very useful when we are concerned with phenomena that are aggregates of strategic behavior by individual actors; but they are not pertinent to many of the questions sociologists pose. In particular, they do not seem useful for sociological inquiries that are primarily concerned with the dynamics and effects of large social structures where the behavior of individuals is routine, homogeneous, or largely determined exogenously. These are the circumstances where the premises of the ABM approach — autonomy, heterogeneity, and activity — are not satisfied.

Social embeddedness

To what extent do individuals choose their courses of action largely on the basis of a calculation of costs and benefits? And to what extent, on the contrary, are their actions importantly driven by the normative assumptions they share with other individuals with whom they interact? Mark Granovetter formulated this foundational question for the social sciences in his important 1985 contribution to the American Journal of Sociology, “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness” (link). He used the concept of embeddedness as a way of capturing the idea that the actions individuals choose are importantly refracted by the social relations within which they function. This is a topic we’ve addressed frequently in prior posts under the topic of the social actor, and Granovetter’s contribution is an important one to consider as we try to further clarify the issues involved.

The large distinction at issue here is the contrast between rational actor models of the social world, in which the actor makes choices within a thin set of context-independent decision rules, and social actor models, in which the actor is largely driven by a context-defined set of scripts as he/she makes choices. The contrast is sometimes illustrated by contrasting neoclassical economic models of the market with substantivist models along the lines of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, and it links to the debate in economic anthropology between formalists and substantivists. Here is how Granovetter puts the fundamental question:

How behavior and institutions are affected by social relations is one of the classic questions of social theory. (481)

He argues that neither of the polar positions are tenable.  The formalist approach errs in taking too a-social view of the actor:

Classical and neoclassical economics operates, in contrast, with an atomized, undersocialized conception of human action, continuing in the utilitarian tradition. … In classical and neoclassical economics, therefore, the fact that actors may have social relations with one another has been treated, if at all, as a frictional drag that impedes competitive markets. (483, 484)

But the extreme alternative isn’t appealing either:

More recent comments by economists on “social influences” construe these as processes in which actors acquire customs, habits, or norms that are followed mechanically and automatically, irrespective of their bearing on rational choice. (485)

So action doesn’t reduce to abstract optimizing rationality, and it doesn’t reduce to inflexible cultural or normative scripts either. Instead, Granovetter proposes an approach to this topic that reframes the issue around a more fluid and relational conception of the actor. Like the pragmatist theories of the actor discussed in earlier posts (AbbottGrossJoas), he explores the idea that the actor’s choices emerge from a flow of interactions and shifting relations with others. The actor is not an atomized agent, but rather a participant in a flow of actions and interactions.

At the same time, Granovetter insists that this approach does not deny purposiveness and agency to the actor. The actor reacts and responds to the social relations surrounding him or her; but actions are constructed and refracted through the consciousness, beliefs, and purposes of the individual. 

The idea of embeddedness is crucial for Granovetter’s argument; but it isn’t explicitly defined in this piece.  The idea of an “embedded” individual is contrasted to the idea of an atomized actor; this implies that the individual’s choices and actions are generated, in part anyway, by the actions and expected behavior of other actors.  It is a relational concept; the embedded actor exists in a set of relationships with other actors whose choices affect his or her own choices as well.  And this in turn implies that the choices actors make are not wholly determined by facts internal to their spheres of individual deliberation and beliefs; instead, actions are importantly influenced by the observed and expected behavior of others.

Their attempts at purposive action are instead embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations. (487)

Some of Granovetter’s discussion crystallizes around the social reality of trust within a system of economic actors. Trust is an inherently relational social category; it depends upon the past and present actions and interactions within a group of actors, on the basis of which the actors choose courses of action that depend on expectations about the future cooperative actions of the other actors. Trust for Granovetter is therefore a feature of social relations and social networks:

The embeddedness argument stresses instead the role of concrete personal relations and structures (or “networks”) of such relations in generating trust and discouraging malfeasance. (490)

And trust is relevant to cooperation in all its variants — benevolent and malicious as well. As Granovetter points out, a conspiracy to defraud a business requires a group of trusting confederates. So it is an important sociological question to investigate how those bonds of trust among thieves are created and sustained.

This line of thought, and the theory of the actor that it suggests, is an important contribution to how we can understand social behavior in a wide range of contexts. The key premise is that individuals choose their actions in consideration of the likely choices of others, and this means that their concrete social relations are critical to their actions. How frequently do a set of actors interact? Has there been a history of successful cooperation among these actors in the past? Are there rivalries among the actors that might work to reduce trust? These are all situational and historical facts about the location and social relations of the individual. And they imply that very similar individuals, confronting very similar circumstances of choice, may arrive at very different patterns of social action dependent on their histories of interaction with each other. 

It seems that this theory of the actor would be amenable to empirical investigation.  The methodologies of experimental economics could be adapted to study of the relational intelligence that Granovetter describes here. Recent works by Ernst Fehr and Klaus Schmidt explore related empirical questions about decision making in the context of problems involving fairness and reciprocity (Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-Scale Societies and “The Economics of Fairness, Reciprocity and Altruism – Experimental Evidence and New Theories”; link).

(These topics have come up in earlier discussions here. Here is a post on Chuck Tilly’s treatment of trust networks; link. Amartya Sen’s discussion of “rational fools” is relevant as well, as is his account of the role that commitments play in action (link). It seems likely that Granovetter would argue that Sen’s solution is still too formalist, in that it attempts to internalize he social relations component into the actor’s calculations. This is true of the “identity economics” approach as well; (link).)

Amartya Sen’s commitments

A recent post examined the Akerlof and Kranton formalization of identity within a rational choice framework.  It is worth considering how this approach compares with Amartya Sen’s arguments about “commitments” in “Rational Fools” (link). 

Sen’s essay is a critique of the theory of narrow economic rationality to the extent that it is thought to realistically describe real human deliberative decision-making. He chooses Edgeworth as a clear expositor of the narrow theory: “the first principle of Economics is that every agent is actuated only by self interest” (Sen 317, quoting Mathematical Psychics). Sen notes that real choices don’t reflect the maximizing logic associated with rational choice theory: “Choice may reflect a compromise among a variety of considerations of which personal welfare may be just one” (324). Here he argues for the importance of “commitments” in our deliberations about reasons for action. Acting on the basis of commitment is choosing to do something that leads to an outcome that we don’t subjectively prefer; it is acting in a way that reflects the fact that our actions are not solely driven by egoistic choice.  “Commitments” are other-regarding considerations that come into the choices that individuals make.

Sen distinguishes between sympathy and commitment:

The former corresponds to the case in which the concern for others directly affects one’s own welfare. If the knowledge of torture of others makes you sick, it is a case of sympathy; if it does not make you feel personally worse off, but you think it is wrong and you are ready to do something to stop it, it is a case of commitment. (326)
The characteristic of commitment with which I am most concerned here is the fact that it drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare, and much of traditional economic theory relies on the identity of the two. (329)
Sen thinks that John Harsanyi made an advance on the narrow conception of rationality by introducing discussion of two separate preference orderings that are motivational for real decision-makers: ethical preferences and subjective preferences. (This is in “Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility”.)  But Sen rightly points out that this construction doesn’t give us a basis for choosing when the two orderings dictate incompatible choices.  Sen attempts to formalize the idea of a commitment as a second-order preference ordering: a ranking of rankings.  “We need to consider rankings of preference rankings to express our moral judgments” (337).

Can one preference ordering do all these things? A person thus described may be “rational” in the limited sense of revealing no inconsistencies in his choice behavior, but if he has no use for these distinctions between quite different concepts, he must be a bit of a fool. The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron. Economic theory has been much preoccupied with this rational fool decked in the glory of his one all-purpose preference ordering. To make room for the different concepts related to his behavior we need a more elaborate structure. (335-336)

Here is an example.  “I wish I liked vegetarian foods more” is an example of a second-order preference ranking: it indicates a rational preference for the first-order ranking in which the vegetarian option comes ahead of the lamb option over the ranking in which these options are reversed.  And Sen’s point is an important one: the second-order ranking can be behaviorally influential.  I may choose the vegetarian option, not because I prefer it, but because I prefer the world arrangement in which I go for the vegetarian option.  Or in other words, one’s principles or commitments may trump one’s first-order preferences. 

Significantly, Sen’s thinking on this subject was developed in part through a conference organized by Stephen Körner on practical reason in the 1970s (Practical Reason: Papers and Discussions).  This is significant because it focuses attention on a very basic fact: we don’t yet have good theories of how a variety of considerations — ethical principles, personal identities, feelings of solidarity, reasoning about fairness, and self-interest — get aggregated into decisions in particular choice circumstances.

Other economists might object to this formulation on the basis of the fact that second-order preference rankings are more difficult to model; so we don’t get clean, simple mathematical representations of behavior if we introduce this complication.  Sen acknowledges this point:

Admitting behavior based on commitment would, of course have far- reaching consequences on the nature of many economic models. I have tried to show why this change is necessary and why the consequences may well be serious. Many issues remain unresolved, including the empirical importance of commitment as a part of behavior, which would vary, as I have argued, from field to field. I have also indicated why the empirical evidence for this cannot be sought in the mere observation of actual choices, and must involve other sources of information, including introspection and discussion. (341-342)

But his reply is convincing.  There are substantial parts of ordinary human activity that don’t make sense if we think of rationality as egoistic maximization of utility.  Collective action, group mobilization, religious sacrifice, telling the truth, and working to the fullest extent of one’s capabilities are all examples of activity where narrow egoistic rationality would dictate different choices than those ordinary individuals are observed to make.  And yet ordinary individuals are not irrational when they behave this way. Rather, they are reflective and deliberative, and they have reasons for their actions.  So the theory of rationality needs to have a way of representing this non-egoistic reasonableness.  This isn’t the only way that moral and normative commitments can be incorporated into a theory of rational deliberation; but it is one substantive attempt to do so, and is more satisfactory (for me, anyway) than the construction offered by Akerlof and Kranton.

(I also like the neo-Kantian approach taken by Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism as an effort to demonstrate that non-egoistic reasoning is rational.)

Akerlof and Kranton on identity economics

George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton have collaborated for over ten years on a simple idea: is it possible to introduce the concept of social identity into the formal mechanics of mainstream economics? Can “identity” complement “interest” in the calculation of rational individual behavior? Their ideas were developed in several important articles: “Economics and Identity” (link), “Identity and the Economics of Organizations” (link), and “Identity and Schooling” (link).  These earlier articles are all available on the Internet.  Much of their thinking is pulled together in a recent book, Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being.

So what is their theory of identity and rational behavior?  “Economics and Identity” (2000) is a good place to begin. Akerlof and Kranton argue that there are common social phenomena that are not well explained by the assumption of narrow economic rationality, but that are more amenable to treatment with a theory of individual choice that incorporates the factor of social identity. They include “ethnic and racial conflict, discrimination, intractable labor disputes, and separatist politics” as examples of social behavior that “invite an identity-based analysis” (716).

Here is how they incorporate the behavioral mechanism of identity into an actor model, using the example of gender identity:

Everyone in the population is assigned a gender category, as either a ‘‘man’’ or a ‘‘woman.’’ Following the behavioral prescriptions for one’s gender affirms one’s self image, or identity, as a ‘‘man’’ or as a ‘‘woman.’’ Violating the prescriptions evokes anxiety and discomfort in oneself and in others. Gender identity, then, changes the ‘‘payoffs’’ from different actions. (716-717)

In other words, they incorporate identity into the rational-actor model by hypothesizing that one’s identity alters one’s utility function or preferences:

In the next section we propose a general utility function that incorporates identity as a motivation for behavior. (717)

And here is the utility function they produce (719):

We propose the following utility function:

(1) Uj = Uj(aj,a_ j,Ij).

Utility depends on j’s identity or self-image Ij, as well as on the usual vectors of j’s actions, aj, and others’ actions, a_j. Since aj and a_j determine j’s consumption of goods and services, these arguments andUj(·) are sufficient to capture the standard economics of own actions and externalities.

Following our discussion above, we propose the following representation of Ij:

(2) Ij = Ij(aj,a_j;cj,epsilonj,P).

A person j’s identity Ij depends, first of all, on j’s assigned social categories cj. The social status of a category is given by the function Ij(·), and a person assigned a category with higher social status may enjoy an enhanced self-image. Identity further depends on the extent to which j’s own given characteristics j match the ideal of j’s assigned category, indicated by the prescriptions P. Finally, identity depends on the extent to which j’s own and others’ actions correspond to prescribed behavior indicated by P. We call increases or decreases in utility that derive from Ij, gains or losses in identity.

What this comes down to, in my reading, is the idea that one’s “identity” creates a new set of payoffs for some actions, depending on whether the action confirms and enhances one’s identity fulfillment or whether it decreases one’s identity fulfillment. If I am a Welsh miner and strongly subscribe to the idealizations associated with miners — then I will take utility in the actions that express solidarity and thereby buttress my status as a good miner, even when the self-regarding utilities of the action would dictate anti-solidarity.  Crudely, identity-consonance is a plus utility, while identity-dissonance is a minus utility, and actors balance first-order utilities and identity-consonance utilities in their ultimate choice of action. So this construction doesn’t deviate from standard rational choice reasoning much, if at all. Rather, it extends the cost-benefit calculation to include a new category of effect that the agent is hypothesized to value or disvalue–consistency / inconsistency with self concept.

This is a pretty limited conception of how identities work.  A more adequate treatment of identity as a substantive feature of social psychology ought to pay attention to a number of dimensions of practical rationality that are not included in this analysis.  (i) Cognitive frameworks. Individuals with a specific identity may have distinctive ways of conceptualizing and experiencing the world.  These differences may affect behavior through mechanisms that are quite distinct from calculation of costs and benefits. (ii) Normative motivations. It is possible that people make decisions on the basis of their normative commitments, and that this process is to some degree independent from calculations of costs and benefits.  Moreover, it is possible that different groups have significantly different normative commitments. In this case individuals from different “identities” may behave significantly differently when confronted with apparently similar situations of choice. (iii) Group affinities / identifications. It is possible that there is a social psychology of “solidarity” that has its own dynamic and behavioral consequences; and that this affective or motivational system has different characteristics in different groups. (iv) Emotional frameworks. It is possible that individuals absorb behaviorally important systems of emotions and feelings through their development within a specific cultural group; and it is possible that differences across groups lead to different patterns of behavior in common scenarios of action and choice.

So I think that Akerlof and Kranton are right to think that the theory of action associated with narrow economic rationality doesn’t do justice to ordinary decision making in a range of important cases.  They are right as well in thinking that the social psychology of identities and normative commitments is relevant to behavior in ways that cannot be pushed aside as “extra-rational.” But I don’t find their solution based on incorporating identity “utilities” into a larger utility function to be an adequate way of incorporating these broader considerations for action into a theory of the rational actor.

(It is worth observing that the descriptions offered by Akerlof and Kranton of the prescriptions surrounding gender identity are quite jarring: for example, “the ideal woman is female, thin, and should always wear a dress”. Here is another set of gender stereotypes that they weave into their exposition:

Female trial lawyer, male nurse, woman Marine—all conjure contradictions. Why? Because trial lawyers are viewed as masculine, nurses as feminine, and a Marine as the ultimate man. People in these occupations but of the opposite sex often have ambiguous feelings about their work. In terms of our utility function, an individual’s actions do not correspond to gender prescriptions of behavior. (721-22)

These assumptions aren’t crucial to their argument, but they are difficult to overlook.  It is hard to read these expository paragraphs without thinking that Akerlof and Kranton have built some very basic negative stereotypes into their description of gender identities. So it’s worth noting how a very good gender theorist might react to these descriptions.  Here is a very good, nuanced analysis by Elizabeth Cole and Alyssa Zucker on “Black and White Women’s Perspectives on Femininity” that does a much more adequate job of describing gendered identities (link).)

Coleman on the elementary actor


James Coleman’s work has had a major influence on an important strand of thinking in the social sciences since the publication of Foundations of Social Theory in 1990.  He was a somewhat iconoclastic sociologist, in that his approach to social theory was grounded in an actor-centered view of the social world. He was a rational-choice theorist in a world of sociologists who usually have a lot of skepticism about rational-choice models of social action.

Here is how Coleman describes two basic approaches to sociology in “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital” (link; 1988).

There are two broad intellectual streams in the description and explanation of social action. One, characteristic of the work of most sociologists, sees the actor as socialized and action as governed by social norms, rules, and obligations. The principal virtues of this intellectual stream lie in its ability to describe action in social context and to explain the way action is shaped, constrained, and redirected by the social context.  The other intellectual stream, characteristic of the work of most economists, sees the actor as having goals independently arrived at, as acting independently, and as wholly self-interested. Its principal virtue lies in having a principle of action, that of maximizing utility. This principle of action, together with a single empirical generalization (declining marginal utility) has generated growth of neoclassical economic theory, as well as the growth of political philosophy of several varieties: utilitarianism, contractarianism, and natural rights. (S95)

Coleman indicates here that his distinctive approach to sociology attempts to combine both streams; but this isn’t quite accurate.  Really, his treatment of norms, rules, and organizations is grounded in the rational-choice framework; he seeks to incorporate normative behavior into the orbit of rational choice.  Fundamentally, then, Coleman’s social theory is a microfoundational attempt to show how a range of social patterns, institutions, and organizations can be explained in terms of the rational choices of the actors who are involved in those patterns.

The fundamental construct on which Coleman depends is the idea of an “elementary actor.” Here is how he characterizes the “elementary actor” in Foundations of Social Theory.

The elementary actor is the wellspring of action, no matter how complex are the structures through which action takes place. For the theory of this book, the elementary actors as described so far constitute extraordinarily simplified abstractions of human individuals. They are hedonic creatures, who experience satisfaction to differing degrees from the outcomes of various events and from the acquisition or consumption of various resources. The expectancy of such satisfaction leads an individual actor to act in a way intended to increase it. (Coleman 503)

This description is aggressively weighted towards a “thin” theory of action, and it is difficult to see where the ideas of socialization and norms can come into the picture.  It is a remarkably sketchy theory of human action; it is designed to permit mathematical modeling rather than to provide a language in terms of which to describe ordinary human behavior.  It is wholly non-contextualized; it provides no nuance in terms of other factors that might influence thought and action; and it erases all that is concrete and historical from human action.

A distinctive aspect of Coleman’s view is his willingness to countenance corporate actors as actors.  Natural, biological actors are one particularly kind of agent; but in Coleman’s model of social action, there are actors at a range of levels of social aggregation.

A natural person encompasses two selves, object self and acting self, or principal and agent, in one physical corpus. A minimal corporate actor is created when principal and agent are two different persons. With this same minimal structure, the principal may be a corporate actor, or the agent may be a corporate actor, or both may be corporate actors (as when a corporation owns another corporation). (421)

In each case an actor is defined in terms of a set of interests and goals, a set of beliefs about the environment of choice, and a decision rule.  These assumptions permit the theorist to reason about choices and interactions in complex social settings.  These actors can then be introduced into an aggregative model to simulate the consequences of their choices.

So what about norms?  How do norms play into Coleman’s conception of social action?

The concept of a norm, existing at a macrosocial level and governing the behavior of individuals at a microsocial level, provides a convenient device for explaining individual behavior, taking the social system as given. …

Durkheim began with social organization and in a part of his work asked, “How is an individual’s behavior affected by the social system within which he finds himself?” Answering this requires not the three components of social theory that I outlined in the first chapter of this book but only one — the transition from macro to micro. (241)

Coleman’s inclination is to explain norms as conventions that are in some sense advantageous over the long term for those who adopt them.  Norms have a substantial rational or prudential core; they depend on something like a social consensus about their value.

I will say that a norm concerning a specific action exists when the socially defined right to control the action is held not by the actor but by others. (243)

A norm may be embedded in a social system in a more fundamental way: The norm may be internal to the individual carrying out the action, with sanctions applied by that individual to his own actions.  In such a case a norm is said to be internalized. (243)

The emergence of norms is in some respects a prototypical micro-to-macro transition, because the process must arise from individual actions yet a norm itself is a system-level property which affects the further actions of individuals. (244)

It is hard for me to see that this construction could provide a promising framework for doing substantive sociological research.  The theory is ideal for the purpose of modeling stylized interactions and complexes of social actions.  It provides a malleable basis for simulation of social situations.  But it abstracts from the rich complexity of human agency in a way that seems assured to lead to failure when applied to real social phenomena.  Virtually every theory of agency acknowledges the importance of “purposiveness” within a theory of action.  So rational choice has a role to play within an adequate theory of the actor.  But the deficiency of this hyper-abstract rational-choice axiomatization of action is precisely that it assumes away the complexity and multi-dimensionality of real human action.  Here is an earlier post that sketches some of the other factors that need to be included in a messy theory of the actor.

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