PS 474G, Political Psychology

Lecture Outline:  Rational Choice & Psychological Models of Decision-Making

(Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy; Rick Lau, “Models of Decision-Making”)


I.            The Classic Economic Rational Choice Approach to Decision-Making


A.         Choice involves deciding between two or more alternative actions that are associated with beliefs about their outcomes  that are associated with a certain value to the decision-maker.


B.          Definition of Rationality

1.         Rational behavior is purposive behavior directed toward the attainment of goals.

2.         To be rational, one selects the alternative course of action (means) which most efficiently reach one's goals (ends). That is, one selects the action with the greatest expected value.

3.         In general, rationality is defined more by the selection of means than the final ends.  However, to avoid the tautology that every action is rational because it was directed toward some (unknown) goal, the analyst must place some restriction on the particular goals that he or she is willing to consider to be rational. E.g., political, economic goals.

4.         Requires a high estimation of the average individual's capacity for reason, choice, cognition, and conscious calculations.


C.          The Form of Rational Choice Theories

a)          Hypothetical-deductive theories: the analyst begins by making a few simplifying, "as if" assumptions about how the world works and then deduces an actor's behavior in a given situation.

b)         The end of science is prediction, rather than explanation.

c)          Theories are tested by the accuracy of their predictions rather than the validity of their assumptions.

d)         Preference for producing "elegant models of irrelevant universes" vs. "data dredging," inductive methods.  Parsimony vs. complexity.


D.         Application to Abstention (Turnout) in Elections

1.         Citizens vote if PB > C, where:

a)          P = probability that a citizen's vote will affect the outcome of the election

b)         B = the extent to which the individual feels that one party (candidate) will benefit him or her more than the other party (i.e., "expected party differential").

c)          C = costs associated with voting.

d)         D?

e)         Other formulations?

2.         How accurate are the predictions of the model? The “paradox that ate rational choice theory”?


E.          Application to Acquisition of Information

1.         Rational ignorance


F.          Application to Determinants of the Vote Choice

1.         Downs as a more formal treatment of Representative democratic theory

2.         What are the goals/means of candidates and of voters?

3.         What are the predictions of the model?

4.         Downs’ explanations of why the predictions of the baseline model do not hold & implications for rationality of ordinary citizens: rational candidates create irrational voters.


G.         Application to Citizen's Decision to Join a Political Group (not covered)

1.         (Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action)

2.         Assumptions

a)          Political groups are in the business of providing members with collective goods (i.e., once it is applied, it is available to all members of the group, regardless of whether they contributed or not).

b)         Individuals are rational, perfectly informed, and motivated by economic gain.

c)          The marginal costs (MC) of providing the good are positive and increasing, while the marginal benefits (MB) of obtaining the good are positive and decreasing (i.e., benefits decrease for each additional increment of the good).

d)         Individuals will contribute to the group up to the point where the marginal costs (MC) of providing the good are equal to the marginal benefits (MB) they derive.

3.         Predictions

a)          The "exploitation of the great by the small" (i.e., large members end up contributing the bulk of the good).

b)         As the proportion of small members increases, so does the likelihood that none of the collective good will be provided (i.e., the larger the potential group, the less effective it will be).

4.         How well do these predictions match reality?


II.          Lau’s Discussion of Behavioral Decision Theory (Psychologist Herbert Simon)


A.         Problems with Classic Economic Rational Choice Approach to Decision-Making

1.         Ideally, “homo economicus” voters must seek out all relevant information on all issues and all candidates, where each candidate proposal is an alternative associated with a range of outcomes and probabilities.

2.         Constraints in ability and motivation.

3.         Is the fact that so many people choose alternatives where the costs outweigh the benefits evidence that: a) such behavior is somehow rational, b) many people are irrational, or c) the rational choice perspective is somehow flawed?  If so, should it be used as a normative ideal to evaluate actual decision-making?


B.          Behavioral decision theory

1.         Cognitive limitations on rationality

2.         Ways of simplifying decision-making

3.         Bounded rationality


C.          Characteristics that influence decision-making

1.         Characteristics of the task

2.         Characteristics of the information

3.         Characteristics of the decision-maker: self-interest and goal selection


D.         Methods for studying decision-making

1.         Surveys

2.         Decision boards


E.          Voting correctly

1.         Definition and measurement of a “correct” vote choice

2.         Findings: what types of decision making models are associated with “correct” voting and why?


F.          Comparing Economic and Psychological Approaches (see class notes for a more complete list)

1.         Benefits of the economic approach

a)          Normative model

b)         Useful for aggregating across individuals or actors

c)          Useful for studying the interactions among different types of actors (e.g., candidates and voters)

2.         Benefits of the psychological approach

a)          More realistic understanding of decision-making and the limitations and errors of decision-makers


III.       Victims of Groupthink, Irving Janis

A.         What is groupthink?

B.          Examples of defective decision making and “perfect failures” that have been linked to groupthink

C.          Summary chart from Janis, Ch. 8

D.         Preventing groupthink

E.          Can groupthink help to explain intelligence errors of WMD in Iraq?

F.          Can groupthink help to explain the flawed decision making in the occupation of Iraq? (“No End in Sight,” “The Fog of War”)

G.         Assessing groupthink

1.         Evaluating the evidence for groupthink from Janis and lab studies

2.         Problems with groupthink