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55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply the best: read it at least twice
I read this book twice. The first time, I thought that it was excellent, the best compendium of ideas of social science by arguably the best thinker in the field. I took copious notes, etc. I agreed with its patchwork-style approach to rational decision making. I knew that it had huge insights applicable to my refusal of general theories [they don't work], rather limit...
Published on November 23, 2007 by N N Taleb

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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for the lay reader
The book was recommended to me as one that was accessible for someone who is not an academic, however, I found the book to be highly technical and not at all for the lay person. All the book jacket blurbs are written by professors, which tells you something about it's intended audience
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55 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply the best: read it at least twice, November 23, 2007
This review is from: Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Paperback)
I read this book twice. The first time, I thought that it was excellent, the best compendium of ideas of social science by arguably the best thinker in the field. I took copious notes, etc. I agreed with its patchwork-style approach to rational decision making. I knew that it had huge insights applicable to my refusal of general theories [they don't work], rather limit ourselves to nuts and bolts [they work].
Then I started reading it again, as the book tends to locate itself by my bedside and sneaks itself in my suitcase when I go on a trip. It is as if the book wanted me to read it. It is what literature does to you when it is at its best. So I realized why: it had another layer of depth --and the author distilled ideas from the works of Proust, La Rochefoucault, Tocqueville, Montaigne, people with the kind of insights that extend beyond the ideas, and that makes you feel that a reductionist academic treatment of the subject will necessary distort it [& somehow Elster managed to combine Montaigne and Kahneman-Tversky]. So as an anti-Platonist I finally found a rigorous treatment of human nature that is not Platonistic --not academic (in the bad sense of the word).
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
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52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing vision of the whole of social science, December 21, 2007
This review is from: Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Paperback)
For the past forty years, Jon Elster has attempted to explain things ranging from the emotions to technological change. The result is dozens of books (and even more papers) in three languages across four universities. And throughout, his work has not just been exemplary social science, but has always struggled with the question of what social science _should be_ -- what kinds of explanations are legitimate, which techniques should be used, and so on.

As he reaches his late sixties, it is understandable if he begins to think of his legacy. That certainly would help explain his latest book, _Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences_ (Cambridge University Press, 2007), a 500-page masterpiece that I expect will be seen as the summation of a brilliant career.

It's a book unlike any other and, as a result, unless read from start to finish can seem bizarre, if only because one has little sense of what the book is trying to do. It is not a guidebook, or a textbook, or a piece of social science in itself. In short, it is nothing less than an attempt to summarize an idealized vision of the whole of social science in simple language.

The book's foundational assumption (as implied by its title) is that the goal of social science is to discover explanations for social phenomena. It begins by describing what explanations are and discussing their different forms. But the bulk of the book consists of tools that can be used in explanations: emotions, norms, time discounting, weakness of will, magical thinking, cognitive dissonance, heuristics and biases, rationality, irrationality, neuroscience, evolution, externalities, game theory, pluralistic ignorance, informational cascades, collective action, cyclical preferences, institutions, etc. -- in short, the entire toolkit of the social sciences.

Just as amazing as the breadth topics is the way in which they're covered. Elster explains each phenomenon clearly and concisely, so that any educated reader can understand them with little effort, without ever sacrificing intellectual depth. His explanations are peppered with examples from an amazing variety of sources: ancient history, recent history, personal experience, the classics of social science (e.g. Tocqueville), the great philosophers (Montaigne, Pascal, Mill), and classic novelists (e.g. Proust). The result is a book which not just introduces readers to the discoveries of the social sciences but to the intellectual world as a whole. Bibliographical notes following each chapter as well as the conclusion provide a rich guide for further exploration.

And yet it's not simply a compendium of interesting results in the social sciences, but attempts to defend a particular conception of what the social sciences should be. In the conclusion, Elster defends his notion of social science as the attempt to discover particular explanations for particular phenomena against the "soft obscurantism" of the literary theorists and the "hard obscurantism" of the economists. As part of this, he turns his back on the notion of rational-choice models being an explanation in themselves, noting that their many assumptions are in desperate need of empirical defense.

In response to an earlier draft of this review, Elster wrote "I'm glad you appreciate the details in my book, but you're missing the big picture, which is that there isn't any." Instead of trying to build a Grand Theory which explains all of social life, we should try to build explanations of particular phenomena from the nuts and bolts we have lying around. And "even if a dominant explanation of a given event or episode is discarded and then resurrected, the building blocks or mechanisms at work in the discarding and resurrection remain. The repertory, or the size of the toolbox, does not shrink."

For anyone who cares about social science, Elster has done an amazing service in clearly describing the toolbox's contents and defending its importance.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Flawless Victory, April 29, 2008
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This review is from: Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Paperback)
With no footnotes, no jargon, no namedropping and (almost) no mathmatics, this book clears all the conceptual underbrush away from the foundations of the social and behavioral sciences. Reading it was like watching an intellectual kung fu master in a rapid-fire series of celebrity deathmatches. As soon as Elster has dispatched Milton Friedman (Whup-POW!), he moves on to Steven Jay Gould. He chops ideas up into neat 10-page sections, says what he has to say, then cracks his knuckles and moves on. He does this so effortlessly that I found myself scratching my head ("how did I not see this before?") at the end of each section. It's not exactly fun - the reading can be dense - but it can be thrilling to simply feel the dust and cobwebs shoot out of your ears. I learned more in 500 pages than in 6 years of undergraduate survey courses. Highly, highly recommended.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rich and Provocative, but not always Correct, February 28, 2012
By 
Herbert Gintis (Northampton, MA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Paperback)
Jon Elster's strength is his deep understanding of behavioral science as well as the classical writers on human nature and human society. In the past several years, his goal has been to join the two, throwing in the natural sciences, to explain more fully the nature of society. He says (p. 246) "In a common view, the scientific enterprise has three distincti parts or branches: the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences...but...a rigid distinction may prefent cross-fertilization...the social sciences can benefit from the biological study of human beings and other animals...interpretation of works of art and explanation are closely related enterprises." I think he is largely successful, and that this is a very useful approach for humanists and social scientists (although not for natural scientists). The number of insights per page in this book is prodigious, and it should be widely read.

I have several criticisms of Elster's exposition. In part, our differences may have narrowed or disappeared, as this book was published in 2007 and doubtless written a few years before that.

Elster's treatment of altruism is very Kantian. An act is altruistic if it benefits another at a cost to oneself, and one was motivated to undertake the act in order to benefit the other person. This, I believe, is absurd. If I really care about another person's welfare, then it pleases me to help this person. It is in my self-interest to behave altruistically. Very often I use the term self-regarding rather that self-interested, precisely because a truly moral person has a self-interest in being other-regarding. Part of my satisfaction in performing the altruistic act is that so doing is morally right, and I get satisfaction from behaving in a morally correct manner. But it may not. I may think there is nothing especially moral about being helpful or considerate or loyal--it just gives me satisfaction. Similarly, I may punish bad acts of others not because I want to change society for the better, but because I am personally very angry at the behavior. If I scream at a bad driver on the road, I am not trying to improve his driving behavior; I am trying to make him feel bad, and I might not care a whit whether it affects his behavior.

Elster's treatment of rational choice is fquite knowledgeable and sophisticated. But he presents the theory in a manner that renders it empirically incorrect, and gives no way to improve upon it, except to talk about emotions and irrationality. Rational choice theory assumes agents have a subjective prior over the effect of their choices on outcomes (beliefs), a set of transitive, consistent preferences over outcomes (preferences), and the face constraints in making their choices (such as limited information and resources). A rather strong form, but which I think is generally acceptable, is that rational agents update their subjective prior using something equivalent to Bayes rule. That is all. Elster insists that "rational choice theorists want to explain behavior on the bare assumpton that agents are rational." (p. 191) This I call the fallacy of methodological individualism, which is rampant in economics, and is empirically false (see my book Bounds of Reason, Princeton 2009).

A stripped-down version of rational choice theory is both compatible with the facts, and extremely useful, as much of applied economics attests to. The main weakness of the theory, I believe, is the assumption that beliefs are personal (subjective prior), when in fact beliefs are generally the product of social linkages among complexly networked minds, and probabilities are resident in distributed cognition over this network. Elster's discussion of beliefs is again very rich, but he does not present the networked character of minds and the relationship of such networks or the formation and transformation of beliefs.

Elster's description of game theory is very useful and his suggested readings are excellent. However, he criticizes game theory for "predictive failures" (p.337), including behavior in finitely repeated games that are subject to analysis using backward induction. These games include the repeated prisoner's dilemma, the centipede game, and the traveler's dilemma. In all cases, backward induction gives a result that is very far from how people play the game. For instance, in the repeated prisoner's dilemma and the centipede game, backward induction says to defect on the first round, whereas in fact in a long game, people generally cooperate until near the very end of the game. However, the use of backward induction, while very common in game theory, cannot be justified by rationality alone. Rather, you need the common knowledge of rationality (CKR), which I believe is a very suspect epistemological condition---see Bounds of Reason, or the paper on CKR on my web site (under submission).

I think Elster should subject this book to a bit of rewriting, but meanwhile is is about the best book available on the topic.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Choice Book, May 29, 2012
By 
Dan Wallace (Minneapolis, MN) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Paperback)
Jon Elster says, "Choice remains the core concept in the social sciences." In this book he proceeds to describe the complexity behind our many choices. If you are looking for a light, breezy read that simplifies human behavior, veer away from this one. But if you want a grand sweep of human behavior, this could be the ticket.

The pages work to synthesize psychology, sociology and neuroscience with folk wisdom and literature. It is refreshing that the author does not carry a chip on his shoulder like so many social scientists do, nor does he ape the language of hard science. One of his controversial arguments is that qualitative social science is actually more useful than quantitative social science. Yet at the same time he is a loyal reductionist.

One commonality that Explaining Social Behavior has with contemporary pop psychology is that it outlines emotion as being more central than logic. What the book does not do is reduce human emotion to simple axiomatic truths. Instead, Elster presents emotion as the messy business it really is.

Predicting social behavior is challenging since our emotions are guided by the context of situations, perceptual and cognitive limitations and the shifting circumstances and opportunities of each individual. The author says, "It is easier to change a persons' circumstances and opportunities than to change their minds." A key insight.

From this base of circumstances and opportunities leading to emotion, Elster suggests that we form desires and beliefs that lead to information gathering and action. This model of human behavior makes intuitive sense, and it is the closest thing to a central theory in the book. He calls this the desire-belief model.

As someone involved with both marketing and learning, I was eager to hear the author's take on motivation. In short, he sees motivation as a competing array of forces including the visceral and the rational, the shortsighted and farsighted, the selfish and altruistic . . . all amid wants to wishes that are subject to the desire-belief model.

Elster's views on motivation can be contrasted with the view of Daniel Pink in Drive, where Pink argues that people want autonomy, mastery and purpose. Of course, there are many other theories on motivation as well, from carrots and sticks to Theory X & Y. The authors ideas about motivation seem to align with mine -- in that there are many ways to motivate or be motivated; the challenge is fit the context of each situation.

I was particularly interested in Chapter 23 on Collective Belief Formation, Chapter 24 on Collective Action, Chapter 25 on Collective Decision Making, and Chapter 26 on Organizations and Institutions. Eichten shows how collective belief starts with a few individuals and gains steam through motivations ranging from self-interest to peer pressure, guilt, personal growth and the desire for raw adventure. Collective decision making is made through a combination of arguing, bargaining and voting.

Organizations are defined by their capacity for centralized decision making. These bodies may have members or employees, with rights governed by constitutions which need to balance power. Key organizational challenges include constructing proper incentives and aligning principals and agents with the needs of the organization.

This book is filled with insights into human nature and nurture. It is a great read. I found out about Explaining Social Behavior from a Twitter link with the favorite books of Nicolas Taleb. As with Taleb's book, The Black Swan, this book is filled with aphorisms, keen insights and clever turns of phrase. I leave you with some of my favorites:

* The good social scientist has to consistently think against oneself -- to make matters as difficult for oneself as one can.
* To excel at anything is to deviate, and deviation is the object of universal disapproval.
* The invention of game theory may come to be seen as the most important single advance of the social sciences in the twentieth century. Games illuminate the structure of the two central issues of social interaction -- cooperation and coordination.
* Behavior is often no more stable than the situations that shape it.
* It is simply not true that people are aggressive, impatient, extroverted, or talkative across the board.
* The ratio of fear of loss to the desire for gain is empirically about 2.5 to 1.
* Delay strategies might seem to hold out the best promise for dealing with emotion-based irrationality.
* To understand a work of art is to explain it in terms of the antecedent mental states of its creator.
* Whereas too much rationality can be unintelligible, irrationality can be perfectly intelligible.
* As misunderstandings are dissipated, felicity ensues; as ignorance is lifted, disaster occurs.
* If debates are held in public, the quality of argument will suffer. If they take place behind closed doors, arguing may degenerate into bargaining.
* Reciprocal altruism is not a plausible mechanism for generating cooperation in larger groups.
* Egoism, said Tocqueville, is "the rust of society." Similarly, is is often said that trust is "the lubricant of society."
* An autocratic government is unable to make itself unable to interfere.
* Rational choice theory is subjective through and through.
* The brain is a natural conspiracy theorist.
* All explanation is causal explanation.

The Black Swan
Status Anxiety
Man's Search for Meaning
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but sometimes dated, October 20, 2011
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This review is from: Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Paperback)
No one writes about social science more incisively and brilliantly than Jon Elster. This book retains his famous edge, with sharp, well-written, knowledgeable comments that can sum up or devastate a whole field in a few sentences. He is best on working epistemology and on economics and economic theory.
The other reviews, already posted, say enough about that. It is left to me to make a few comments on what is lacking here. Elster has updated his great summary NUTS AND BOLTS FOR THE SOCIAL SCIENCES (1989) with a vast amount of additional material, most of it relating to European novels and other literary writings (he is particularly fond of Montaigne and de Tocqueville). Unfortunately, the updating is sometimes a bit thin.
One major problem is that he still regards human personality traits as not fixed but largely and basically situational. This was widely accepted in the 1980s, following Walter Mischel's famous advocacy of the position in 1968, but it has not stood the test of time. Better personality theories (Costa and McCrae, etc.), research, and prospective studies have shown that basic personality traits remain constant through life. They may vary with situations, but do not really change much; an introvert may be more outgoing at a wild party than at a board meeting, but will in both contexts be notably more introverted than a solid extravert. Elster's counter-evidence comes from selective quotes from literary works--not even close to scientific arguing!
Another case is his dismissal of evolutionary psychology. It was brilliant, incisive, and devastating in the 1970s when he first made it. He has not significantly updated it. The evolutionary psychologists, however, read him (and others) and learned. The recent work on evolutionary social science, e.g. by Alexandra Maryanski and Jon Turner (and even by more traditional workers in the field like David Buss), is worlds away from the simplistic, naive just-so stories of the 1970s. To be sure, there are still some naive storytellers around, but they are not the leaders now. Elster's own answers to his questions on social action--see pp. 449-454--are more like the old just-so stories than are the works of modern evolutionary social scientists.
Notable also in this book is the total dismissal of anthropology, of which he says only that "social anthropology...has been moving in the direction of soft social science" (p. 461), which to him is ipso facto unscientific and therefore outside his consideration. This means that Elster simply does not consider culture at all. He thus ignores a large amount of thoroughly scientific anthropology, such as the recent work of Scott Atran, Brent Berlin, Roy D'Andrade, Michael Fischer, David Kronenfeld...the list goes on and on. And even soft anthropology can produce testable hypotheses; Clifford Geertz' ideas about Bali have often been tested, and some are right, some not so right. The point is that they are considerably more testable in the real world than many of Elster's claims--especially if nothing more than literary sources is adduced as evidence for the latter. Literature is fine for providing examples of scientifically proven matters; it is not so fine as stand-alone evidence.) Elster has himself moved in a much softer direction; his individualist, rational-choice view of the 1970s has moved to a wider vision including emotion, social interaction, literature, philosophy, and other such issues; but he has not made corresponding moves into the scientific research on some of these areas, leaving him in an odd position of denouncing soft social science while in fact practicing it.
I could go on, but will stop here and summarize: This book is wonderful for basic individual-choice, economics-based social theory. It is not so fine for interaction and institutions, but still good, and full of insights. It is still less fine for cultural and wider social (and evolutionary) issues. For those, readers might look at Jonathan Turner's recent 3-volume survey of sociological theory, or David Kronenfeld et al.'s BLACKWELL COMPANION TO COGNITIVE ANTHROPOLOGY, among other books.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars valuable but something is missing, February 5, 2013
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This review is from: Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Paperback)
I somewhat tend to agree with Nargis Jumanova who gave three-star to this book.

Surely, this is a valuable book, that is why i have rated four-star. However, something is missing in this book. I could not exactly identify what is missing but certainly there is.

One of the possible explanation is that the book is less academic. To be honest, as a non-English person, i hate long ,wordy sentences and excessively embellished style of writings. Yet I tend to believe that the book could be written in the same style but with a more persuasive language.

Second possible explanation is that there are many valuable pieces of information in the book, that is for sure. But they are not well-articulated. I mean they are well-articulated but it could have been better. At some point you feel that you are bombarded with valuable pieces of information without enough elaboration.

All in all, i do not want to discourage you to buy this book particularly for two reasons. First, the book really deserves the money that you will spend for it. Secondly, read that book and just tell us what is missing in that book (if anything is missing). Or is it just my illusion and everything is OK.

I need to end here, but i hope smarter guys (at least, smarter than myself) with high critical ability will read this book and make more robust criticism of it. Because i genuinely want to learn what is the absent thing that i feel but cannot diagnose.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, August 27, 2009
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This review is from: Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Paperback)
As the title suggests, this book is an expanded and revised edition. As a non-professional and autodidact in the field of social sciences, I too find this book a gem as the other reviewers have so indicated. The book is divided into five (5) sections:

1) Explanations and Mechanisms
2) The Mind
3) Action
4) Lessons From The Natural Sciences
5) Interaction

Sections 2-5 are must reads if you are into the social sciences, but I found the first Section on Explanations and Mechanisms just a skosh on the highbrow side. However, we are talking about someone that has spent over 40 years on his work. Outside this very slight discomfort on my part, my copy is marked-up extensively which is a good indication that I found this fine addition to the social sciences worthy of my time and effort.

Though this book is somewhat on off the beaten track so to speak, other fine works on the social sciences that are worth your attention are:
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (polymath classic) by Robert B. Cialdini,
The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (classic) by Scott Plous,
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (very good) by Thomas Gilovich,
Mean Markets and Lizard Brains (Hidden Gem) by Terry Burnham,
Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition (Very Hidden Gem) by Peter Bevelin, or
Poor Charlie's Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger (Charlie's Insights) by Peter Kaufman.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good start for research design, January 4, 2014
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Social interactions are framed with rigor. Many social variables are introduced and examined. Researchers in sociology and behavioral science at any levels should have.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great overview, October 20, 2013
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This book gives Elsters view on social behavior; much of it from an economics perspective that sees rational action as the basic driver of behavior. But, Elster always peeks around the sidelines, and discovers places where the theories do not quite fit the facts, and may need to be changed. Much of his thinking is around how individual people think and act, and the book ends up being a broad critique of "simple" descriptions of rationality. Much of what he describes is still problematic now, although the book was written a few years ago. But the writing is not in the form of criticizing in order to condemn; he is consistently pushing towards ways of improving our understanding of how individuals make decisions and societies function. The book is long, but each chapter is well contained, so it can be read piece by piece. It is well written throughout; very clear in the ideas and the examples used to illustrate them.
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