- Paperback: 484 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (April 30, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521777445
- ISBN-13: 978-0521777445
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 20 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #939,695 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences 1st Edition
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"...contains many interesting puzzles and examples, and excellent elementary discussions of the major concepts of the social sciences...a treasure trove of suitable and interesting case-studies and examples..." --Dean Rickles, University of Sydney: Philosophy in Review
This book is an expanded and revised edition of the author's critically acclaimed volume Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. In twenty-six succinct chapters, Jon Elster provides an account of the nature of explanation in the social sciences. He offers an overview of key explanatory mechanisms in the social sciences with hundreds of examples.
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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.
The pages work to synthesize psychology, sociology and neuroscience with folk wisdom and literature. One of his central 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 adult 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. 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. Elster 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
Man's Search for Meaning
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America