De Gustibus Est Disputandum

De Gustibus Est Disputandum

SATOSHI KANAZAWA, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2001.

Principles of Evolutionary Psychology

Our preference for sweets and fats is an example of an evolved psychological mechanism (Barash 1982:144-47). Throughout most of human evolutionary history, procurement of sufficient calories to sustain our bodies physically was a particularly severe problem of adaptation (survival); malnutrition was a common problem. In this environment, those who had a “taste” for sweets and fats (which have higher calories) were better off physically than those who did not have the same taste. Those who had this taste therefore lived longer, led healthier lives and produced higher-quality offspring than those who didn’t. They in turn passed on their taste to their offspring, over many thousands of generations, until most of us living today have a strong preference for sweets and fats. (See Buss 1995:5-9 for other examples of evolved psychological mechanisms.)

Note that we do not consciously choose or decide to like sweets and fats. We just like them but otherwise don’t know why; sweet and fatty foods just taste good to us. […]

… To put it more precisely, “certainly we are unique, but we are not unique in being unique. Every species is unique and evolved its uniqueness in adaptation to its environment. Culture is the uniquely human way of adapting, but culture, too, evolved biologically” (van den Berghe 1990:428). Human beings are just like other animal species (Maryanski & Turner 1992), and all the laws of nature — in particular, the laws of evolution by natural and sexual selection — apply as much to humans as they do to other species. The second broad generalization is that there is nothing special about the brain as a human body part; it is just like the hand or the pancreas or any other body part. Just as a long history of human evolution has shaped the hand or the pancreas to perform a specific function, so has evolution shaped the human brain to perform certain tasks (solving adaptive problems). […]

Recall the example of our preference for sweets and fats as an evolved psychological mechanism. This psychological mechanism solved the adaptive problem of survival and reproduction in the EEA by allowing those who possessed it to live longer and reproduce more successfully. Our preferred consumption of sweets and fats was therefore fitness-maximizing in the EEA. However, we now live in an environment where sweets and fats are abundantly available in every checkout line in every supermarket in every city in every industrial society, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In other words, the original adaptive problem no longer exists; very few people die of malnutrition in industrial societies. Yet we still possess the same psychological mechanism to compel us to consume sweets and fats. Because our environment is so vastly different from the EEA, we now face a curious situation where those who behave according to the dictates of the evolved psychological mechanism are worse off in terms of survival and reproduction. Obesity (to which overconsumption of sweets and fats leads) hinders both survival and successful reproduction. […]

… It is not impossible to overcome this bias through conscious effort, but it is often difficult. This is why we still respond to sweets and fats today as if we still lived in the EEA where such high-calorie foods were rare and malnutrition was an imminent problem for survival (even though many of us can consciously overcome the urge).

Phobias provide a good example. Most humans have deep-seated and innate phobias of spiders and snakes. This is because spiders and snakes, many species of which are poisonous, represented genuine threats to human survival in the EEA. That is why humans have biological mechanisms (either freezing or fleeing) to deal with these threats. Humans have been selected to have the psychological mechanism to fear spiders and snakes and the physical mechanisms to freeze or flee to avoid the danger.

This is true even today. Even though very few of us, living in urban cities, encounter poisonous spiders and snakes, we still have phobias about them. For most of us, cars and electric outlets represent far greater danger for survival than spiders and snakes; far more people in the U.S. die in car accidents and electrocution than from spider or snake bites. However, most of us still have an innate and strong fear of spiders and snakes rather than of cars and electric outlets, because our brain is biased to perceive our environment as if it were the EEA, where there were no cars and electric outlets (Buss 1999:62-63). This fundamental observation, that our brain and its psychological mechanisms are strongly biased to view and respond to the world as if it were still the EEA, will have important implications in my discussion of several points below.

Current Explanations of Values and Preferences

LEARNING

Learning — past contingencies of reinforcement and punishment — can provide explanations of individual values and preferences. Actors will come to hold values and preferences that produce behavior for which they are repeatedly reinforced, and they will come to reject those that produce behavior for which they are repeatedly punished.

Macy’s (1990, 1991a, 1991b, 1995) stochastic learning theory of collective action, and its application to the paradox of voter turnout (Kanazawa 1998, 2000), provide an example. Macy argues that actors take success or failure of collective action as reinforcer or punisher, respectively, for their individual behavior. If actors contribute toward collective action and the collective action succeeds, then their contribution is reinforced and they become more likely to contribute in the future. If actors contribute toward collective action and the collective action fails, then their contribution is punished and they become less likely to contribute (thus more likely to freeride) in the future. The same process of reinforcement and punishment occurs when individuals freeride. If the collective action succeeds, then their defection is reinforced and they become more likely to defect in the future. If the collective action fails, then their defection is punished and they become less likely to defect (thus more likely to contribute) in the future. A series of computer simulations (Macy 1990, 1991a, 1991b) and a laboratory experiment (Macy 1995) support his theory.

Kanazawa (1998, 2000) applies Macy’s theory to the paradox of voter turnout. If citizens vote and their candidate of choice wins, then their voting is reinforced and they become more likely to vote in the future. If citizens vote and their candidate of choice loses, then their voting is punished and they become less likely to vote (thus more likely to abstain) in the future. The same process of reinforcement and punishment occurs when citizens abstain. If their candidate of choice wins, then their abstention is reinforced, and they become more likely to abstain in the future. If their candidate of choice loses, then their abstention is punished, and they become less likely to abstain (thus more likely to vote) in the future. Data from the American National Election Study (Kanazawa 1998) and from the General Social Survey (Kanazawa 2000) support his hypotheses. It therefore appears that citizens whose voting is reinforced and those whose abstention is punished acquire a preference for voting (which Riker & Ordeshook 1968 call “the sense of civic duty”). In contrast, citizens whose voting is punished and those whose abstention is reinforced acquire a preference for abstention (losing their sense of civic duty). […]

The definitions of reinforcer and punisher involve circularity (Catania 1973:40). “If a stimulus that follows an operant [voluntary response] causes an increase in the future frequency of the operant, the stimulus is a reinforcer. If a stimulus that follows an operant causes a decrease in the future frequency of the operant, the stimulus is a punisher” (Baldwin & Baldwin 1986:93). How then can we escape the circularity and know a priori which stimuli are reinforcers and which stimuli are punishers? No less an authority than Skinner (1969:206) himself provides the answer: “The capacity to be reinforced . . . must be traced to natural selection.” Evolutionary psychology can explain why some stimuli function as reinforcers and why others function as punishers.

Recall the earlier example of our preferences for sweet and fatty foods. Why do we have these preferences? A perfect learning-theoretic answer is that we have been rewarded when we consume sweet and fatty foods (because they taste good and pleasurable) and we have been punished when we don’t consume enough sweet and fatty foods (because we get a headache when our glucose level becomes too low). However, this explanation simply begs the question: Why do we experience the consumption of sugar and fat as rewarding, and not, say, the consumption of broccoli and brussels sprouts? Why do we not get a headache when our allylisothiocyanate (which is found in broccoli and brussels sprouts) level becomes too low?

A more ultimate, evolutionary psychological answer is that glucose and calories (both of which are found in abundance in sweet and fatty foods) solve the adaptive problems of survival and reproduction, while allylisothiocyanate doesn’t. In fact, allylisothiocyanate in large quantities can be toxic, especially to children (Nesse & Williams 1994:81-90). This is why natural selection has equipped human brains with a taste for sugar and fat and a distaste for broccoli and Brussels spouts (especially among children, who usually outgrow their dislike of these vegetables as they grow older, when allylisothiocyanate ceases to be toxic to them). This is why sugar functions as a reinforcer, and broccoli functions (mostly) as a punisher.

… One person’s vote has virtually no effect on the outcome of large national elections. Why is it then that actors perceive a link between their behavior and the outcome of collective action and act as if their choice made a difference, by being reinforced by its success and punished by its failure?

Recall that our brain is biased to perceive and respond to the world as if it were the EEA. “Collective action” in the EEA involved at most 50-100 individuals. If Og says “Let’s go to the mountains to hunt wild pigs” and Zod says “Let’s go to the forest and hunt monkeys,” and their band collectively decides to go to the mountains to hunt wild pigs, it is not unreasonable for Og to think that his vote had an effect on the collective decision, for two reasons. First, the group is small, and so each person in a 50-person band has a much larger share of the collective vote than a citizen in the U.S. presidential election. Second, “voting” (collective decision making) in the EEA did not involve secret ballots; everybody in the group knew how everybody else voted. So, unlike in modern elections, Og’s and Zod’s votes may not have been weighed equally. Thus Og has all the (rational) reasons to believe that his vote has an influence on the collective outcome, and he should continue trying to influence the group decision. Conversely, Zod has all the (rational) reasons to believe that his vote does not carry weight in his group, and he should perhaps cease trying to influence the group decision.

This is admittedly highly speculative. However, evolutionary psychology can provide at least one possible explanation of why the success of collective action serves as a reinforcer and why its failure serves as a punisher, which otherwise remains perplexing. My contention is that the human brain (adapted to the EEA) conceives of collective action, and responds to its outcomes, as if it involves only dozens of people (none of whose choices are anonymous), even when it in fact involves millions of people (whose choices are completely anonymous).

NORMS

… Where do norms come from? Yet again, evolutionary psychology can provide a more ultimate explanation for the emergence of norms (Kanazawa & Still 2001), which could then function as more proximate causes of behavior.

Cosmides and Tooby’s (1992) work on cooperative food sharing and their notion of evoked culture provide an example of an evolutionary psychological theory of the emergence of norms. Evoked culture refers to differences between groups that are triggered by local circumstances. They are varied manifestations of universal psychological mechanisms due to varied environmental conditions. They result from the interaction of universal human nature and local environments.

One of the psychological mechanisms that humans (and other species) possess is reciprocal altruism (Trivers 1971). This psychological mechanism compels us to help each other in times of need. It also makes us expect reciprocity in exchange. When we help our neighbors in their times of need, we expect them to help us in our times of need. This psychological mechanism is the reason simultaneously why we get angry at those who do not reciprocate our favors, and why we feel guilty when we fail to reciprocate others’ favors to us. We have been selected to possess this psychological mechanism because, given the uncertainty in our environment, those who possess it and help each other can better survive than those who don’t. Species as primitive as vampire bats also engage in reciprocal altruism as humans do (Wilkinson 1984).

Cosmides and Tooby (1992) note that the local environmental condition that triggers the norms of cooperative food sharing is the high variance in food resources and availability. When the variance is high (as it is for large game hunting), on any given day some individuals procure more food than they can consume while others procure nothing. High variance also creates uncertainty, because whether one can procure food on any given day largely depends on luck. Under such conditions, the universal psychological mechanism of reciprocal altruism is triggered, and the norms of cooperative food sharing emerge at the macro level. In these cultures, there are strong negative sanctions against those who do not share their food with the less fortunate. When the variance is low (as in food gathering), the norms of cooperative food gathering do not develop because the amount of food one procures in these situations is largely proportional to one’s effort.

As within-group evidence of this mechanism, Cosmides and Tooby (1992) note that the Ache of Paraguay have the norms of sharing meat communally (since meat is a high-variance food). However, within the same tribe, gathered plant food is not shared outside of the nuclear family (since nuts and berries are low-variance food). As between-group evidence of the same mechanism, Cosmides and Tooby (1992) cite Cashdan’s (1989) work on the Kalahari San. She notes that the !Kung San face extreme variability in the availability of food and water, whereas the //Gana San manage to keep the variance low through horticulture and goat husbandry. As predicted by Cosmides and Tooby’s theory, the !Kung San have developed norms of cooperative food sharing, while the //Gana San have not.

Cosmides and Tooby’s (1992) work on evoked culture illuminates one crucial characteristic of the evolutionary psychological perspective on the emergence of norms in particular and its explanation of individual values and preferences in general. The perspective, relying as it does on the evolved psychological mechanisms and universal human nature, can explain the cross-cultural universality of norms very well. It addresses the question of why all societies have certain important norms in common (such as norms prescribing cooperation or proscribing incest). However, by taking the local environment into consideration, it can also explain why certain norms emerge in some societies but not in others. Evolutionary psychology’s reliance on the universal human nature and evolved psychological mechanisms decidedly does not mean that it predicts the emergence of the same norms everywhere. Kanazawa and Still’s (1999) analysis of the emergence of marriage institutions discussed above provides another example of how the interaction between the universal human nature and the differential structural conditions lead to the emergence of divergent norms in different societies.

Four Conundrums of Rational Choice Theory

… Why do players in one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma games cooperate? Why do people participate in collective action (rather than freeride)? Why do people sometimes behave “irrationally” by acting on their emotions? Why does rational choice theory appear more applicable to men than to women?

WHY DO PEOPLE COOPERATE IN ONE-SHOT PRISONER’S DILEMMA GAMES?

Noncooperative game theory, which forms some of the microfoundations of rational choice theory, predicts that rational actors in one-shot or finitely iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma games always defect. Defection is the dominant strategy in such games (in that a player can earn higher points by defecting no matter what choice the other player makes) and mutual defection is the Nash equilibrium (in that there is no incentive for rational players to change their strategy from defection to cooperation given the other player’s choice). Yet in laboratory experiments, nearly half of all human subjects playing one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma games against each other make the irrational choice to cooperate (Sally 1995). Why so many people cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemma and other social dilemmas is one of the persistent puzzles of rational choice theory.

One crucial defining characteristic of one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma games in laboratory experiments is that the two players are anonymous. This complete anonymity prevents either player from retaliating against the other’s defection, and thereby makes the payoffs from the game the only considerations in making one choice or the other in the game. It is only with the assumption that Player B cannot retaliate against Player A (because Player B doesn’t know who Player A is) that it becomes rational for Player A to defect on Player B.

Recall that the human brain and its evolved psychological mechanisms are biased toward viewing and responding to the world as if it were still the EEA. One of the things that did not exist in the EEA was complete anonymity. All interactions and exchanges in the EEA were face-to-face, and there were no anonymous interactions through computer terminals in a laboratory. So, even though complete anonymity is guaranteed by the experimental design, human subjects still behave as if they were not anonymous in the experiment and their exchange partners would know who they were and retaliate against their defection, just as they still act as if poisonous snakes and spiders were serious threats to their survival. 3

This also explains why one of the factors that most strongly increases the rates of cooperation in Prisoner’s Dilemma games is pregame communication (Dawes 1980:185-86; Sally 1995): When players are allowed to communicate with each other before the game, their rates of cooperation increase (even though they cannot make any binding commitment to cooperate or to punish defectors). While this is one of the most robust findings in the experimental literature on social dilemmas, nobody seems to know for sure why pregame communication increases cooperation (Kollock 1998:194). I believe that pregame communication increases cooperation because it reinforces the perception that the actors are not anonymous and retaliation is therefore possible, despite their clear, conscious cognition to the contrary. The pregame communication allows the human brain’s innate bias to dominate the conscious cognition even further. 4 In this context, it is important to note that only face-to-face pregame communication increases the rates of cooperation; pregame communication via computers does not (Ostrom 1998:6-7). This is probably because communication via computers (which did not exist in the EEA) does not unconsciously reinforce subjects’ perception that other subjects are people they know.

This explanation for “irrational” cooperation in one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma games raises an inevitable question: Why then do the other half of the experimental subjects defect? I believe this is because these subjects are able to overcome the innate bias to perceive and respond to the world as if it were still the EEA, which is difficult but not impossible to do. The important question for behavioral sciences is not why the human brain works as it is supposed to, by digesting the relevant information and arriving at the correct conclusion. The important question instead is why it sometimes fails to do so. To recall an earlier example, the empirical puzzle is not why some of us can comprehend the deleterious effects of consuming too many sweets and fats and overcome our urge. We already know why we can understand the nutritional information printed on the candy bar and its health consequences. The puzzle instead is why, despite the clear understanding of the information, some of us still overconsume candy bars and get fat when we clearly don’t want to. Similarly, the puzzle is not why half the experimental subjects can comprehend the experimental instructions and arrive at the rational conclusion to defect. The real puzzle is why the other half cannot. Evolutionary psychology and its notion of a content-rich and biased human brain can solve that puzzle.

WHY DO PEOPLE PARTICIPATE IN COLLECTIVE ACTION?

Collective action is a process in which a large number of individuals contribute toward the production and provision of public goods. Public goods, by definition, are nonexcludable and nonrival. Once provided, all individuals can consume the public good regardless of whether they have contributed toward its provision; no one can be excluded from the consumption of public goods. Therein lies probably the greatest paradox of rational choice theory. Why do individuals expend their time and resources to contribute toward the provision of public goods, if no one can subsequently be excluded from their consumption?

For instance, why do thousands of people participate in political rallies and protests, potentially risking physical harm, arrest, or even death in the process, if those who are safely sitting at home, watching the event on TV, cannot be excluded from the benefit of the political and social change that the participants aim to bring about? This is especially puzzling in that one person’s contribution to a large-scale social movement makes virtually no difference to the outcome. If the social movement is going to succeed, it is going to succeed without your participation, and you get to enjoy the benefit of the social change even though you did not contribute to it. If the social movement is going to fail, it is going to fail even with your participation, and all your time and effort will have been wasted. Why bother, then? 5

Olson (1965) was the first to point out this freerider problem. He argued that self-interested, rational individuals would not voluntarily contribute toward the production of nonexcludable public goods; they would instead freeride on the contributions of others. If all individuals are rational, however, no one will contribute and the public good will not be provided. Olson’s solution to the freerider problem was the provision of selective incentives. If the group provides some (excludable) private goods as a reward only to contributors but not to noncontributors, and if individuals sufficiently value these selective incentives, then the group can induce the individuals to contribute toward the provision of public goods.

Frohlich and Oppenheimer (1970:120) have later shown Olson’s theoretical solution to the collective action problem to be logically flawed, however. Selective incentives to encourage contribution toward the public goods are themselves public goods that must be produced and paid for. (PBS stations can give tote bags to listeners or viewers who call in to pledge their financial contributions, but where do they get the money to buy the tote bags in the first place?) The Olsonian solution to the collective action problem through the use of selective incentives therefore assumes a prior solution of the problem and merely regresses the theoretical problem. Note, however, that Frohlich and Oppenheimer’s critique of Olson is valid only if the selective incentives are costly to produce. If selective incentives are costless, then the collective action problem is solvable. Evolutionary psychology suggests one such costless selective incentive for participation in some forms of collective action: social movements and political protests.

To my knowledge, Miller (1996) is the first to suggest that young men and women might possibly participate in political protests and other social movements because they are unconsciously motivated to seek reproductive opportunities. Miller recounts his observation as an undergraduate student at Columbia University in 1986, during the divestment movement against South African apartheid. He notes that the political commitment of the protesters appeared “paper thin” and the takeover of the administration building ended conveniently in time to study for the semester exams, but everybody he knew was dating someone they met during the protest rally. While the protest movement itself was short-lived, the sexual relationships among the protesters sometimes lasted for years. Goodwin (1997) also stresses the importance of unconscious reproductive motives to account for both the successes and failures of social movements and calls for social movement researchers to “return to the repressed.”

During most of their evolutionary history, humans were mildly polygynous (Alexander et al. 1979). In a polygynous mating system, some males monopolize all females, and others are left out of mating altogether. Since women prefer men with higher status and greater resources, and since it takes time for men to accumulate resources and ascend the status hierarchy, in polygynous societies the older men usually monopolize the women, and the younger men do not get to mate until they are old enough to have accumulated sufficient resources. In a gerontocracy, young men are often the losers in the competition for the reproductive resources that women offer them.

The only way for young men to gain access to women’s reproductive resources is to change the system. Just as later-borns within a family have an interest in changing the status quo, in which the first-borns monopolize parents’ attention and resources, and later-borns therefore turn out to be more liberal and rebellious against the system (Sulloway 1996), young men in society have an interest in changing a status quo in which older men monopolize both the material and reproductive resources. In sharp contrast, just as firstborns within a family have an interest in maintaining the status quo, in which they enjoy the benefit of their high status (Sulloway 1996), older men in society have an interest in maintaining the status quo, in which they monopolize the material and reproductive resources. Young men are the later-borns of society and older men are the first-borns. This is probably why young men in all societies are more liberal and rebellious and older men are more conservative, or why rebellious young men become more conservative as they get older.

All social movements seek to change some status quo. They therefore provide opportunities for young men to distinguish themselves and demonstrate to young women that they can change the system and overthrow the older men’s monopoly of resources. Participation in social movements therefore becomes an instance of “cultural display” for the young men (Miller 1999) in which they engage in conspicuous behavior (such as producing music, art, and literature) for the unconscious purpose of attracting women. Social movements also provide opportunities for young women to discern and evaluate who might become the next generation of leaders to displace the status quo and acquire status and resources in the next system. Social movements and political protests therefore provide ideal opportunities for courtship. 6

In his study of the participants of the Freedom Summer, McAdam (1988) notes widespread sexual activities among them. “During interviews at least six of the former volunteers acknowledged a high frequency of sexual behavior on their projects” (297, n. 46). Similarly, Harris (1982:67) states: “Among other things, being on the battlefront together led to a level of heterosexual experimentation unavailable in the more regulated college circles from which the COFO [Council of Federated Organizations] workers hailed.” In their survey of college students during the 1960s, Lipset and Schaflander (1971:282-306) claim that SDS members and others identified with the New Left had a far more casual sex partners than politically uninvolved students that the authors call “marginal ambivalents.” A prominent draft-resistance poster from the 1960s proclaimed “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No” (Stolley 1998:128).

If young men and women participate in social movement activities because they are unconsciously motivated to seek reproductive opportunities, then the theoretical paradox of the collective action problem can be solved. For men and women themselves serve as costless selective incentives to each other, which are unavailable to freeriders. Of course, seeking reproductive opportunities only serves as the ultimate (evolutionary) cause of social movement participation, of which the participants themselves are largely unaware. The proximate (psychological) causes of participation include genuine commitment to the movement’s political cause and a strong desire to bring about social change.

WHY DO PEOPLE SOMETIMES BEHAVE “IRRATIONALLY” BY ACTING ON THEIR EMOTIONS?

One of the persistent criticisms of rational choice theory is that it disregards the role of emotions in human behavior (Scheff 1992). While rational choice theorists themselves recognize the need to incorporate emotions in their explanations of human behavior (Heckathorn 1993), full integration of emotions into rational choice theory has yet to come.

Frank (1988, 1993) is the first to recognize the strategic role of emotions in human behavior. He argues that emotions allow us to solve the “commitment problem.” Sometimes a choice that maximizes our short-term interests does not maximize our long-term interests. For example, retaliation is often costly, and it is cheaper in the short run to let go of others’ defection; it usually carries a personal price to retaliate. However, if we consistently retaliate against defectors, we create the reputation of someone “not to be messed with.” This reputation prevents future defection by others and maximizes our long-term self-interest. Frank argues that our anger, which we have been selected to exhibit against those who defect on us, impels us to retaliate against the defectors despite the short-term costs and serves our long-term interests.

Evolutionary psychology and its concept of psychological mechanism complement Frank’s insight in two ways. First, the interests that emotions serve are those of the genes. Natural and sexual selections have equipped humans to have certain emotions because they serve genetic interest by increasing the inclusive fitness of those who possess them. Second, emotions have the same origins as values and preferences; they both come from evolved psychological mechanisms. Just as we have certain values and preferences but usually don’t know why, we have certain emotions in certain predictable situations, but otherwise don’t know why. Just as we don’t choose or decide to have our values and preferences, we don’t choose or decide to have our emotions. All the “thinking” has already been done by evolution, which equips us with appropriate preferences and emotions to maximize our survival and reproductive success.

Recall the earlier discussion of cooperation in one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma games. I have argued above that individuals cooperate in such games because their brain is biased to perceive the world as the EEA, where there was no complete anonymity and retaliation against defection was always possible. Thus those who defected in the EEA probably did not do better than those who cooperated. The defectors incurred the wrath of their exchange partners and provoked retaliation from them. This is why evolution has equipped humans with a sense of guilt associated with defection, to prevent them from defecting on others and suffering the consequences (Nielsen 1994:291-92). Most of us do not defect on others because doing so makes us feel guilty. 7 Emotions such as guilt therefore provide the proximate psychological causes of our behavior.

Heckathorn (1993:157) states that there are three ways to integrate emotions and rational choice: “Emotions can be derived from rational action; rationality can be viewed as deriving from emotion; or rational action and emotions can be linked to a deeper underlying process.” I believe that Heckathorn’s third choice is correct. I contend that the “deeper underlying process,” from which both preferences (an important ingredient of rational action, along with constraints) and emotions derive, are the evolved psychological mechanisms.

WHY DOES RATIONAL CHOICE THEORY APPEAR MORE APPLICABLE TO MEN THAN TO WOMEN?

Another persistent criticism of rational choice theory is that it is more applicable to male behavior than to female behavior (Ferber & Nelson 1993; Risman & Ferree 1995). England and Kilbourne (1990), for instance, launch a radical-cultural feminist critique of rational choice theory by maintaining that men and women are fundamentally different and that the assumptions of self-interest and rational behavior are more applicable to men than to women.

In principle, there is nothing androcentric about rational choice theory and its microfoundations. At the minimum, the “thin” rational choice model (Ferejohn 1991) simply states that actors do their best to pursue their goals within structural and institutional constraints. This statement applies equally well to men and women; women, just like men, attempt to maximize their utility within the constraints they face.

In practice, however, I believe England and Kilbourne (1990), and other radical-cultural feminist critics of rational choice theory, are correct. Because rational choice theory currently lacks a theory of values and preferences, and because rational choice theorists therefore do not know what idiosyncratic values actors hold, the typical strategy is to assume that actors hold certain common values (Hechter 1994). The typical value assumption is to postulate that actors attempt to maximize wealth, power, and status. Since wealth (and, to a lesser extent, power and status) are fungible goods, actors can use them to pursue idiosyncratic goals; no matter what idiosyncratic values and preferences actors hold, they should all prefer greater wealth, power, and status.

I believe it is this typical value assumption that makes rational choice theory more applicable to men than to women. Evolutionary psychology posits that the single-minded pursuit of wealth, power, and status is more characteristic of male human nature (and of male nature in other species) than of female human nature. Because women prefer to mate with men with greater resources, power, and status (Buss 1994:19-48), men have been selected to maximize wealth, power, and status. Thus men possess the psychological mechanisms that compel them to pursue the accumulation of wealth and the attainment of higher status and greater power in a social hierarchy. These values characterize women’s psychological mechanisms to a far lesser extent. Thus, by postulating the typical value assumptions of wealth, power, and status maximization, rational choice theorists are unwittingly making their theory more applicable to men than to women.

The radical-cultural feminist critique of rational choice theory sharply points to the need for a theory of values in rational choice theory, so that we could explain and predict what men and women want, instead of assuming that both men and women want what only men typically do (or that they typically do to a far greater extent). Further, by explicating why men’s psychological mechanisms might be different from women’s, and thus by demonstrating how men and women are essentially different, evolutionary psychology provides theoretical and empirical support for radical-cultural feminism.

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