The Coalition Politics Hypothesis

Game theories let us analyze precise models of social situations. While each model leaves out much that is important, the ability to see how an entire set of payoffs, info, and acts work together can give powerful insights into social behavior. But it does matter a lot which games we think apply best to which real situations.

Today the game most often used as a metaphor for general social instincts is the public goods game, where individuals contribute personal efforts to benefit everyone in a group. This is seen as a variation on the prisoner’s dilemma. With this metaphor in mind, people see most social instincts as there to detect and reward contributions, and to punish free-riders. Many social activities that on the surface appear to have other purposes are said to be really about this. Here, “pro-social” is good for the group, while “anti-social” is bad. Institutions or policies that undercut traditional social instincts are suspect.

While this metaphor does give insight, the game I see as a better metaphor for general social instincts is this:

Divide The Dollar Game … There are three players … 1, 2, 3. The players wish to divide 300 units of money among themselves. Each player can propose a payoff such that no player’s payoff is negative and the sum of all the payoffs does not exceed 300. … Players get 0 unless there is some pair of players {1, 2}, {2, 3}, or {1, 3} who propose the same allocation, in which case they get this allocation. …

It turns out that in any equilibrium of this game, there is always at least one pair of players who would both do strictly better by jointly agreeing to change their strategies together. …

Suppose the negotiated agreements are tentative and non-binding. Thus a player who negotiates in a sequential manner in various coalitions can nullify his earlier agreements and reach a different agreement with a coalition that negotiates later. Here the order in which negotiations are made and nullified will have a bearing on the final outcome. … It is clear that coalitions that get to negotiate later hold the advantage in this scheme. (more)

That is, most social behavior is about shifting coalitions that change how group benefits are divided, and social instincts are mostly about seeing what coalitions to join and how to get others to want you in their coalitions. Such “social” behavior isn’t good for the group as a whole, though it can be good for your coalition. Because coalition politics can be expensive, institutions or policies that undercut it can be good overall.

In this view of social behavior, we expect to see great efforts to infer each person’s threat point – how much they and a coalition would lose if they leave that coalition. We also expect even greater efforts to infer each person’s loyalty – what coalitions they are likely to prefer and help. And we expect great efforts to signal desirable loyalties and threat points. When shifting coalitions are important, we expect lots of efforts to go into seeing and changing the focal points people use to coordinate which new coalitions form, and to seeing who will be pivotal in those changes.

At a meta level, people would also try to infer what other people think about these things. That is, folks will want to know what others think about various loyalties, threat points, and focal points, and in response those others will try to signal their opinions on such things. In other words, people will want to know how well others can track and influence changing fashions on these topics. At a higher meta level, people will want to know what others think that still others think about these things, i.e., they’ll want to know who is seen to be good at tracking fashion. And so on up the meta hierarchy.

When people talk, we expect them to say some things directly and clearly to all, to influence overall focal points. But we expect many other messages to be targeted to particular audiences, like “Let’s dump that guy from our coalition.” When such targeted messages might be overheard, or quoted to others, we expect talking to be indirect, using code words that obscure meanings, or at least give plausible deniability.

A social world dominated by shifting coalitions would spend modest efforts to influence temporary policies, such has how to divide up today’s spoils, and more efforts on rare chances to change longer term policies that more permanently divide spoils. Even more effort would be spent on rare chances to change who is possible as a coalition partner, For our forager ancestors, killing someone, or letting a new person live nearby, could change the whole game. In a firm today, hiring or firing someone can have similar effects.

This view of social behavior as mostly about shifting coalitions raises the obvious question: why doesn’t most social behavior and conversation seem on the surface to be about such things. And the obvious homo hypocritus answer is that we do such things indirectly to avoid admitting that this is what we are doing. Since coalition politics is socially destructive, we have long had social norms to discourage it, such as the usual norms against gossip. So we do these things indirectly, to get plausible deniability.

This can explain why we place such a high premium on spontaneity and apparent randomness in conversation and other leisure behavior. And also why we seem so uninterested in systematic plans to prioritize our efforts in charity and other good causes. And why we drop names so often. When we manage our shifting coalitions, we prefer to stay free to quickly shift our conversations and priorities to adapt to the changing fashions. If you ever wonder why the news, public discourse, and academia seem so uninterested in the topics most everyone would agree are really important, this is plausibly why.

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