08 July 2008

Collective Action Problems and the Gift of Irrationality

According to us Public Choice theorists, collective action problems are the primary justification for government, or at least governance. So if you're as as anti-government as I am, it's disconcerting to recognize that the social world is filled with collective action problems. That's why I was pleased today to realize that irrational people are actually a bit of a blessing.

The specific collective action problem was in finding enough volunteers to work my daughters' swim meet. The work is divided into a first half and a second half, and the norm is that you don't have to work more than one session per meet. This being an away meet for us, nobody wanted to work the second half; they all wanted to pack up and head home as soon as their kids completed all their events. Without volunteers, the meet can't take place, but there's no reward beyond the good feeling of having helped out.

So why, when I saw that nobody from our team had signed up to be a timer in the second half, did I agree to do it? I had already signed up to work the first half. Anyway, 6 timers from our team were needed, so with no one signed up, my contribution could not be expected to be critical. And I had already worked each meet (except the one my kids missed while at camp), which only a handful of others have also done.

And why did others do so as well? I like to think we are all slightly irrational, and that irrationality helps mitigate collective action problems. Sure, I can think of certain mild benefits I received: I do enjoy timing the swimmers and cheering them on; I do enjoy knowing that I've helped make the meet possible for my kids; and I do receive a greater level of friendliness from certain other parents (those, like us, who have our kids in both the summer and winter programs, and who are known to be the dependable foundations of the program).

But I receive each of those benefits by working just one half, and given the disagreeably hot and humid weather, and the Harry Potter book waiting for me under our pop-up canopy, the marginal value of those benefits was less than what i would have received by declining.

OK, that's not quite precisely true. What tipped the balance was my own choice between guilt at not doing extra, and the satisfaction of knowing I helped--even if non-critically--by doing a little extra, despite nobody else noticing. Still, if that's rational, our definitions of rationality are pretty weak. I prefer to think that a little irrationality goes a long way toward strengthening social institutions.


Scott Hanley said...

It might be fair to say that evolution has a far less narrow, and more enlightened, view of what is "rational" than most observers do. Those emotions must be achieving something.

James K said...

Exactly Scott. Any irrationality that was clearly bad for survival has been cleared out of our brains by evolution.

Its this sort of thing that indefinitely-repeated game theory has to deal with.

James Hanley said...

Yes, as useful as rational choice theory is for analysis, and as much as rationality is, most of the time, the best way to proceed, there's little doubt that perfectly rational behavior has not been the evolutionary outcome for humans--at least to date.

But the question is, why would natural selection favor the kind of irrationality that leads me to sacrifice for the group? Indefinitely repeated game theory does tell us a lot, but keep in mind that this is a case in which my chances of recieving repayment are approaching zero. So part of the key is that natural selection must not have fine-tuned us too much for playing such social games, unless we want to get into old-fashioned group selection (which we don't).

And what's problematic is that such irrational sacrificing seems to be good for society, but potentially subject to elimination if natural selection further finetunes our emotional/cognitive mechanisms. Fortunately that can't happen until long after I'm gone.

James K said...

My best understanding of the evo psych explanation is that our ancestors evolved in small, persistent groups. This sets up the potential for reciprocal altruism, where you do a favour for the group without expecting immediate payback.

Enforcement is driven by the "altruistic punisher" tendency humans have, which ensures that it doesn't pay to cheat. This mechanism sidesteps the need for group selection.

Perhaps one day our descendants will lose this ability. I think its fair to say that at that stage they would no longer be human.