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Private and Public Persona : The Two Faces of Homo Politikon. Herbert Gintis Santa Fe Institute Central European University University of Siena September 2014. Collective Action.

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Private and Public Persona:

The Two Faces of Homo Politikon

Herbert Gintis

Santa Fe Institute

Central European University

University of Siena

September 2014


Collective Action

The struggle for democracy, from the nineteenth century to the present, involved spontaneous collective action.

Virtually every addition to the repertoire of human rights in the twentieth century and the present (e.g., civil rights and feminist movements in USA, Arab spring in Middle East) was the result of collective action not rewarded by established incentive mechanisms.

Collective action is a public goods game in which the contribution of each participant is so small that it does not figure in the decision whether or not to participate.


Collective Action

The benefits of collective action accrue whether or not the individual participates. We term such behavior non-instrumentalor non-consequential.

The social goals of collective action are broader than each participant’s personal self-interest. Participation in collective action is thus other-regarding.

Because the personal costs of participation are positive and benefits are non-consequential, participating is a rather unique form of altruistic behavior.

The preferences of participants in collective action are thus non-instrumental, other-regarding, and altruistic.



A salient form of collective action is voting in large-scale elections.

Rational choice theorists have attempted, since Anthony Downs (1957) and Mancur Olson (1965) to explain voting as instrumental behavior.

This requires each voter to compare the personal cost c of voting to the personal benefit b should his candidate win the election times the probability p that he is the pivotal voter whose participation turns defeat into victory.

The self-regarding rational voter votes if p b > cand abstainsif the reverse inequality obtains.



However, pis infinitesimally small (no large election has ever been determined by a single vote) while the cost c is positive and possiblylarge.

Despite several prominent attempts, there is no model in the literature explaining a high level of voter turnout in all but the smallest groups assuming instrumental voters with self-regarding preferences.


Instrumental Voting

Perhaps voters are instrumental but other-regarding, weighting the gains to society as a whole if their favored candidate wins the election.

With this assumption there are models for which it is instrumentally rational to vote even in very large elections.

These models are implausible because the benefit b must be huge in a large election while many voters participate even when they perceive only moderate differences between the candidates other than personal attractiveness (e.g., vote for a co-ethnic).

Moreover, when asked why they vote, respondents never say that the small probability of making a difference is offset by the huge social gain should this occur.


Instrumental Voting

An implausible aspect of such instrumental altruistic models is that it assumes voters are strongly paternalistic: voter A assumes that those who vote for the other candidate are simply mistaken, and would be better off if voter A’s candidate prevailed.

For if A is the pivotal voter then there are equal numbers of voters on each side, and if A values their preferences equally, then the total social benefit of A’s candidate winning is simply A’s personal benefit, however altruistic A might be.


Civic Duty Voting

Suppose voting is non-instrumental but a civic duty; rational voters get an additional payoff d from voting.

Then it is rational to vote if b p + d > c, which is the same as d > c, since p ≈ 0.

Many voters consider it a civic duty to vote, but this does not explain why

  • they vote for one candidate over another,
  • they become politically informed,
  • they become politically engaged and actually prefer to vote, and
  • they engage in strategic voting (voting for someone other than their most preferred candidate).

Social Pressure Voting

Suppose voting is non-instrumental but one isrewarded for voting by social network members for being a “good citizen.” Then rational voters get an additional payoff dfrom voting, so it is again rational to vote if d > c.

There are models that exhibit high voter turnout with such an assumption.

But the assumption is questionable.

The main problem is that most people do not in fact base their relations with social network members in any way on the knowledge of the latters’ voting behavior.

This assumption also does not explain strategic voting, politically committed voting, or the fact that voters care about who they vote for.


Social Rationality

I will define Homo Politikon as a socially rational agent, a concept stronger than Bayesian rational.

Bayesian rationality (Savage 1954) is incapable justifying the choice of a Pareto-efficient Nash equilibrium in a pure coordination game with a distinct Pareto-efficient equilibrium.


U 1,1 0,0

D 0,0 0,0

For instance, consider the above. The Pareto-superior (Up,Up) equilibrium cannot be justified by a Bayesian rationality argument.


Social Rationality I

Let us say a strategy profile in an n-player game strictly dominates a strategy profile

if the payoff to is strictly greater than the payoff to for each player i= 1,…,n.

Let us say that a strategy profile  is socially irrationalif there is a strategy profile that strictly dominates .

Finally, let us say that agents are socially rational I if they never play a socially irrational strategy profile.

The notion of social rationality cannot be expressed in terms of individual rationality (Gintis, Bounds of Reason 2009).


Social Rationality II

Bayesian rationality (Savage 1954) is incapable justifying pre-play agreement on a Nash equilibrium.

For instance, consider the following game:


U 1,1 0,0

D 0,0 1,1

Bayesian rationality cannot justify a pre-play agreement to both choose U.


Social Rationality II

We say a set of players is socially rational IIif they play a Nash equilibrium upon which they have agreed through pre-play communication.


Homo Politikon:

Social Rationality III

The concept of Homo Socialishas been based on game theory with other-regarding preferences, and assumes consequentialist behavior.

Homo Politikon, the non-instrumental participant in collective action, is a novel form of Homo Socialis (Hamlin and Jennings 2011).

I propose that a social actor has a distinct preference ordering for political behavior in collective action contexts which represent his public persona.

The costs of participating are borne by the actor’s private persona, but the benefits, being purely non-instrumental, accrue to his public persona.


Homo Politikon:

Social Rationality III

Homo Politikon = (private persona, public persona)is social rationality III.

Private persona activities x are instrumental, represented by a payoff function u(x), whereas public persona activities y are non-instrumental with payoffs v(y).

The act of voting is a private persona cost, so it is a component of x, and total payoff can be represented as

u(x) + α v(y),

where αis a constant given by the social situation.


Homo Politikon:

Social Rationality III

Homo Politikon maximizes

u(x) + α v(y),

over choice set X consisting of pairs (x,y),

where α depends on degree of political commitment and awareness, the expected closeness of the election, the expected turnout, and whether the agent’s preferred candidate is expected to win or lose.


Homo Socialis and

Homo Politikon

Note that v(y)> 0 is not irrational.

Voting and other forms of collective action are in one sense like clapping after a music concert or cheering for a sports team (even when at home in front of the TV). Clapping and cheering are expressive rather than instrumental, but they lack a political and moral dimension.

Behavioral models of expressive behavior have not, to my knowledge, been developed.

Public persona political activity is both expressiveand political/moral: there is a (supererogatory) duty to act politically.


Homo Politikon

What is the nature of the political preference function v(y)?

See Hamlin and Jennings (British J Pol Sci 2011).

I conjecture that for most voters, the principle of rule-effectivity explains behavior: choose a rule that like-minded voters might choose, and if followed by such voters, would lead to the most desirable outcome.

This leads voters to act in very large elections in much the same way they would in very small elections where voting is in part instrumental

except that the instrumental u(x) and the non-instrumental v(y) can push in different directions.


Homo Politikon

Why, despite hundreds of papers on the free rider paradox in voting and collective action, has no one proposed the (rather obvious) public/private persona model?

The concept of a public persona conflicts with methodological individualism. Other-regarding preferences do not present this conflict. Empathy, fairness, and strong reciprocity are all modeled simply by adding arguments to the actor’s preference function but retaining the assumption of instrumental action.

We do have a category of moral behavior that is not instrumental: character virtues.


Character Virtues

Character virtues are behaviors valued for their own sake, not for, and even despite, their personal or social effects.

Honesty, courage, considerateness, helpfulness and politeness are character virtues.

For instance, often one is honest not because one cares about others and not because one fears punishment for lying, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

For experimental evidence, see Gneezy AER (2005).


Evidence for a Public Persona

If you ask a voter at the polling center why they are there, the common response is “I want to help candidate A win the election.”

If you respond by noting that the chance of being the pivotal voter is virtually zero, you might get the response “But some important elections are decided by just a few hundred votes.”

If you respond that one single vote still would not make a difference, you might get the response “Well, if everyone thought that way, democracy would collapse.”

If you respond that since everyone does not think that way, your vote still doesn’t matter, you risk physical or verbal assault.


Evidence for a Public Persona

Many citizens agree with the assertion “my single vote won’t make a difference, but if all concerned citizens vote our common concerns, we can make a difference.”

For homo politikon, statements such as “I am helping my candidate win by voting,” and “I am helping promote democracy by demonstrating against the dictator” are literally correct in terms of social rationality III,

however illogical in pre-social rationality terms.


Evidence for a Rule-Effectivity

There is no way to express non-consequentialist rational choice in common parlance.

When I tried to explain the paradox of voting to social scientists forty years ago, even prominent psychologists and anthropologists simply could not understand the problem.

Indeed, when I attempt to explain this situation to a lay audience, many listeners cannot understand how it is not in their personal interest to vote.

In fact, with a public persona, political participation is a self-interested, other-regarding, act.


Private and Public Persona

An often expressed paradox is that many voters vote their self-interest, in the sense that they vote for the candidate who, if successful, will implement policies favoring themselves.

This behavior is inexplicable using an instrumental rational choice model.

The paradox is that a voter who votes is altruistic. So why would such a voter vote his self-interest?

The answer is that his public persona preference ordering systematically favors his personal self-regarding concerns.


Private and Public Persona

With dual private/public personas, we have a two-way categorization of individual preferences:

PersonaSelf-regarding Other-regarding

Private Homo Economicus Homo Socialis

Public Homo Parochialis Homo Moralis

In this diagram, Homo Economicus is the self-regarding (instrumental) private persona, Homo Socialis is the other-regarding (instrumental) private persona.

Homo Parochialis and Homo Moralis are the new actors on stage: contrasting types of (non-instrumental) public persona.


Homo Parochialis

A voter is embedded in a variety of social networks, among which one reflects his economic position in society, another the common morality of others with whom he is socially networked, and a third his demographics (ethnicity, age, sex, geographic region, and the like).

Homo Parochialis votes because he has a sufficiently strong public persona, and being self-regarding (which we term parochial), he votes for a balance of the economic and moral interests of the particular social networks to which he adheres.


Homo Moralis

Homo moralis is an other-regarding public persona, who takes the well-being of society as a whole into account in being motivated to vote, and in choosing his preferred candidate.

For instance, Homo Moralis may make his choices under John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, John Harsanyi’s criterion of universality, or John Roemer’s Kantian equilibrium.


The Evolution of the Public Persona

There is no evidence of a public persona in non-human species.

We are indeed uniquely Homo Ludens(Man, the game player), capable of constructing social games and playing by the rules of these games.

A collective action is a coordinated attempt to change the rules of the game of society.

Voting involves sophisticated game-playing cognition.

These human cognitive capacities evolved through gene-culture coevolution.


The Evolution of the Public Persona

Humans evolved in small hunter-gatherer bands that developed highly complex political relationships.

Political decision-making within these societies was critical for the biological fitness of group members.

Homo Parochialis evolved because groups with many politically sophisticated and committed members chose their leaders wisely and hence outcompeted groups with less effective mechanisms of determining group leadership and organization.


The Evolution of the Public Persona

The following material is taken from my paper with primatologist/anthropologists Carel van Schaik and Christopher Boehm, under revise and resubmit at Current Anthropology.

The paper can be downloaded from my website: The Evolutionary Origins of Human Political Systems


The Evolution of the Public Persona

The most recent common ancestor of the great apes and humans lived in multi-male/multi-female groups in which social dominance was based on physical prowess (the alpha-male).

Hunter-gatherers, the primitive social state of our species until some 10,000 years ago, practiced “reverse dominance hierarchy”

in which the primate predisposition to control through hierarchical dominance was consciously and successfully counteracted by widespread egalitarian practices (Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, 2000).

Maintenance of control over leaders rendered political sophistication broadly fitness-enhancing.


Ancestral Primate Social Structure

Multi-male/multi-female primate groups appeared some 52 million years ago (Shultz et al., Nature 2011).

Mating was promiscuous and males formed a hierarchical power structure with a single alpha male at the apex.

In chimps, the alpha male sires 1/3 to 2/3 of offspring, but maintains alpha position only for about four years.

Individuals know their mothers but not their fathers. There is no pair-bonding in such societies.

All non-human primates who live in multi-male/multi-female groups exhibit this living pattern.


Primate Tools and their Usage

The emergence of lethal weapons in hominids (the human ancestor line) shattered this form of social existence.

Apes are capable of tool use (e.g., harvesting termites with a stick) and they throw stones in disputes or to chase a predator.

However, they do not manufacture tools (e.g., sharpen stones, fashion spears and poison arrows), or combine disparate materials (e.g., stone and wood).

Moreover, because of knuckle-walking, their bodies are not constructed to throw with accuracy or velocity.

As a result, they cannot kill by means of lethal weapons.


Demonic Males

A male chimpanzee is unharmed by surprise attackby a single aggressor.

Richard Wrangham (1996) recounts several instances where even three or four male chimpanzees viciously and relentlessly attack a male for twenty minutes without succeeding in killing him.

The weakness of chimpanzees in this regard is not simply due to the lack of the appropriate lethal weapon,

but also the inability to wield effectively potentially dangerous natural objects, for instance stones and rocks.

A chimpanzee may throw a rock in anger, but rarely will it achieve its target.


Primate Social Power

The alpha male in non-human primate multi-male/multi-female groups is not a leader, but rather a surplus extractor.

The dissolution of the alpha male hierarchy in hominids became costly when hominid societies became highly cooperative in scavenging and/or hunting,

and therefore required an efficient and incentive compatible political structure.


Hominid Social Power

Given lethal weapons, hominid groups had to find some basis for leadership other than force.

The solution was democratic and egalitarian political structure in which leadership fell to those who had superior coalitional and persuasive powers (see Chris Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, 1999 and Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame 2012).

The more skilled, the more talented, and the more intelligent individuals held positions of high social influence and even power in such new arrangements, and since these positions could not be held by force, they must have been held by persuasion.


Hominid Social Power

Thus successful hominid social bands came to value individuals who could command prestige by virtue of their persuasive capacities.

Hunter-gatherer life thus favored progressive cephalization and the evolution of language.

In short, two million years of evolution in the presence of lethal weapons gave rise to the particular physical, moral, political and cognitive qualities of Homo sapiens.

Whence the emergence of Homo Politikon as a central figure in the human repertoire.