A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action: Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 1997

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Citation: Elinor Ostrom (1998) A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action: Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 1997. The American Political Science Review (RSS)

doi: 10.2307/2585925 Wikidata: Q29041919




Ostrom starts with a claim about the state of collective action research:"We have not yet developed a behavioral theory of collective action based on models of the individual consistent with empirical evidence about how individuals make decisions in social-dilemma situations. A behavioral commitment to theory grounded in empirical inquiry is essential if we are to understand such basic questions as why face-to-face communication so consistently enhances cooperation in social dilemmas or how structural variables facilitate or impede effective collective action" (p. 1).

She then gives a great definition of social dilemmas:"Social dilemmas occur whenever individuals in inter-dependent situations face choices in which the maximization of short-term self-interest yields outcomes leaving all participants worse off than feasible alternatives" (p. 1).

Reciprocity is an evolved response to group-level selection, and collective action research seeks to explore a biological contradiction - we are hard-wired to be both self-seeking and to learn heuristics and norms that enable group behavior. Rational choice models focus on the first half and ignore the second. They are terrible at predicting behavior in one-shot social dilemma games and in real-world situations where cooperation and public goods production is much more prevalent than rational choice models would predict. Ostrom claims that we need to "formulate a behavioral theory of boundedly rational and moral behavior" for a few reasons, including empirical evidence from public policy, cognitive scientists, etc. as well as the claim that rational choice models introduce a norm of cynicism and distrust where reality provides hope and opportunities for collective action.

One major point is that people behave like rational choosers in markets but not in social dilemmas and so we shouldn't design public policy around rational choice models. For example, from a theoretical perspective talk is cheap and should not improve collective action but F2F interaction makes cooperation much more likely. CMC did not have the same effect.

Innovation and Collective Action

Punishment or changing the rules is a second-order social dilemma, but it often appears in practice with tools such as monitoring with graduated sanctions. In the lab, when groups can decide on a sanctioning system they cooperate at extremely high levels. "The really big puzzle in the social sciences is the development of a consistent theory to explain why cooperation levels vary so much and why specific configurations of situational conditions increase or decrease cooperation in first- or second-level dilemmas. This question is important not only for our scientific understanding but also for the design of institutions to facilitate individuals' achieving higher levels of productive outcomes in social dilemmas" (p. 9).

Toward 2nd-generation models of rationality

Ostrom claims that people use heuristics, norms, and rules to make decisions. Heuristics are rules of thumb, used to deal with uncertainty and incomplete information. Norms attach additional positive or negative value to certain types of actions/decisions. Rules are shared understandings that certain actions will be met with sanctions. The line here is obviously fuzzy, but norms are more general while rules apply to specific contexts and actions.


Ostrom claims that we have a biological / evolutionary ability to learn reciprocity norms. There are different classes of reciprocity norms which may exist in a population such as tit-for-tat, start uncooperative, start cooperative, etc. These norms are learned and people bring past experience to their decisions.

Cooperators have a more optimistic view of others than defectors - both groups think others are like them and because of reciprocity they are usually proven right.

Reciprocity leads to reputation. Actors can choose to enter into social exchanges with trustworthy others and avoid untrustworthy people. There is a positive feedback loop between reciprocity, reputation, and trust. When one grows they all do, but exogenous factors can also cause a downward spiral.

Communication and Core relationships

In many cases, communication lets people assess the trustworthiness of others and the likelihood of making a contingent agreement where a subgroup agrees to cooperate. Communication also allows for non-extreme forms of punishment. Members can work to discover and chide defectors rather than using a grim trigger strategy.


Ostrom ends with insightful suggestions for research and policy, e.g., the importance of experiments, the role of the state, etc. She argues that institutions and rules should focus on 2nd-generation models - e.g., how to increase reciprocity and trust. Finally, she claims that this information should be distributed more broadly in textbooks so that students understand their opportunity to solve social dilemmas.