Unification of the social sciences? Gintis’s “The Bounds of Reason”

I recently finished Herbert Gintis’s The Bounds of Reason (link), in which the author tries to bring the foundations of game theory into better alignment with actual social behavior and make a case for the unification of the social and behavioral sciences (economics, psychology, sociology, and political science). Gintis suggests that certain dividing lines drawn between humans and other living beings’ behavior can be indefensible: traits commonly construed as “distinguishing” of humans, like language and property rights, commonly appear among other animals as a matter of fact.

Gintis introduces behavioral postulates that go beyond canonical game theoretical analyses, such as allowing for rational agents to pursue goals that go beyond narrow self-interest. The conflation of rationality with narrow self-interest is major peeve for anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of rational choice theory, myself included, and Gintis does a good job of exposing this fallacy. He also discards improbable or illogical constructs such as deep backward induction or actual randomization in mixed strategies. He shows that by reconfiguring the rudiments in this way, one is able to carry out even more compelling and true-to-life analyses of strategic problems like coordination and commitment without losing tractability. Gintis thus responds to Ariel Rubinstein’s famous statement that “models in economic theory … are not meant to be testable” (quoted on p. 129), calling Rubinstein “dead wrong: the value of a model is its contribution to explaining reality, not its contribution to society’s stock of pithy aphorisms” (p. 129).

Gintis also provides a spirited critique of methodological individualism, another totem to which many assume rational choice theory is tethered. Methodological individualism cannot properly account for the emergence of social norms, social cues, or frames, but norms, cues, and frames are fundamental to social behavior. The repeated games literature has been the primary venue for methodological individualists to explain cooperative behavior. But Gintis demonstrates that attempts to loosen the strict knowledge assumptions that underpin the classical folk theorem have failed to produce compelling explanations for cooperative equilibria. This impels one to think about other sources of cooperative behavior, like hard-wiring, perhaps through evolutionary processes, of other-regarding preferences and “social choreography” through prescriptive norms. Gintis proposes that Robert Aumann’s concept of correlated equilibrium provides analytical foundation for understanding the operation of social norms.

The book is technically demanding at times, and the rather frequent typos don’t help to make it digestible. But it is well worth the attention of researchers across the social sciences.

In fact, I’d be most interested to hear what social psychologists have to say about the book. Social psychology is a branch of the social sciences where formal decision- and game-theoretic modeling has not caught on. But it is also a branch from which economists and political scientists seem to be drawing a lot of inspiration these days. By Gintis’s logic, the translation of social psychological insights into the formal decision and game theoretical models represents a crucial scientific step forward. I wonder whether any of this work in synthesis and formalization will be done by social psychologists themselves?


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