Micromotives and Macrobehavior (2)

Schelling, Thomas C. (1978). Micromotives and Macrobehavior. New York: W. W. Norton. 2007.

Lasciatemi aggiungere una seconda cosa, più tecnica, alla prima recensione.

Schelling elabora, nel primo capitolo di questo libro, una serie di considerazioni molto interessanti sul rapporto tra economia e altre scienze sociali, con molti punti in comune con le mie concezioni (ammesso che questo possa interessare qualcuno).

What this book is about is a kind of analysis that is characteristic of a large part of the social sciences, especially the more theoretical part. That kind of analysis explores the relation between the behavior characteristics of the individuals who comprise some social aggregate, and the characteristics of the aggregate.

This analysis sometimes uses what is known about individual intentions to predict the aggregates […]. Alternatively this kind of analysis may do what I invited you to do – to try to figure out what intentions, or modes of behavior, of separate individuals could lead to the pattern we observed. If there are several plausible behaviors that could lead to what we observed, we can look for evidence by which to choose among them.

There are easy cases, of course, in which the aggregate is merely an extrapolation from the individual. […]

[Other] situations, in which people’s behavior or people’s choices depend on the behavior or the choices of other people, are the ones that usually don’t permit any simple summation or extrapolation to the aggregates. To make that connection we usually have to look at the system of interaction between indi­viduals and their environment, that is, between individuals and other individuals or between individuals and the collectivity. And sometimes the results are surprising. Sometimes they are not easily guessed. Sometimes the analysis is difficult. Sometimes it is inconclusive. But even inconclusive analysis can warn against jumping to conclusions about individual intentions from observations of aggregates, or jumping to con­clusions about the behavior of aggregates from what one knows or can guess about individual intentions. […]

Notice that in all of these hypotheses there is a notion of people’s having preferences, pursuing goals, minimizing effort or embarrassment or maximizing view or comfort, seeking company or avoiding it, and otherwise behaving in a way that we might call “purposive.” Furthermore, the goals or purposes or objectives relate directly to other people and their behavior, or are constrained by an environment that consists of other people who are pursuing their goals or their purposes or their objectives. What we typically have is a mode of contingent behavior – behavior that depends on what others are doing.

In other sciences, and sometimes in the social sciences, we metaphorically ascribe motives to behavior because something behaves as if it were oriented toward a goal. […] But with people it’s different. […] We can often ascribe to people some capacity to solve problems – to calculate or to perceive intuitively how to get from here to there. And if we know what problem a person is trying to solve, and if we think he can actually solve it, and if we can solve it too, we can anticipate what our subject will do by putting ourself in his place and solving his problem as we think he sees it. This is the method of “vicarious problem solving” that underlies most of microeconomics.


Nevertheless, this style of analysis undeniably invites evaluation. It is hard to explore what happens when people behave with a purpose without becoming curious, even concerned about how well or how badly the outcomes serve the purpose. Social scientist are more like forest rangers than like naturalists (corsivo mio).


What makes this evaluation interesting and difficult is that the entire aggregate outcome is what has to be evaluated, not merely how each person does within the constraints of his own environment. […] How well each does for himself in adapting to his social environment is not the same thing as how satisfactory a social environment they collectively create for themselves.

Among the social sciences the one that conforms most to the kind of analysis I have been describing is economics. In economics the “individuals” are people, families, owners of farms and businesses, taxi drivers, managers of banks and insurance companies, doctors and school teachers and soldiers, and people who work for the banks and the mining companies. Most people, whether they drive their own taxis or manage continent-wide airlines, are expected to know very little about the whole economy and the way it works. […]

Somehow all of the activities seem to get coordinated. […] Tens of millions of people making billions of decisions every week about what to buy and what to sell and where to work and how much to save and how much to borrow and what orders to fill and what stocks to accumulate and where to move and what schools to go and what jobs to take and where to build the supermarkets and movie theaters and electric power stations, when to invest in buildings above ground and mine shafts underground and fleets of trucks and ships and aircraft – if you are in the mood to be amazed, it can amaze you that the system works at all. Amazement needn’t be admiration […].

What I asked you to be amazed at, and not necessarily to admire, is simply the enormous complexity of the entire collec­tive system of behavior, a system that the individuals who comprise the system needn’t know anything about or even be aware of. If we see pattern and order and regularity, we should withhold judgment about whether it is the pattern and order of a jungle, a slave system, or a community infested by parasitic diseases, and inquire first of all what it is that the individuals who comprise the system seem to be doing and how it is that their actions, in the large, produce the patterns we see. Then we can try to evaluate whether, at least according to what tbe individuals are trying to do, the resulting pat­tern is in some way responsive to their intentions.

In economics it often appears that a lot of this unmanaged and unguided individual activity leads to aggregate results that are not too bad, indeed about as good as could be expected if somebody took command and figured out what ought to be done and had a way to get everybody to do what he was supposed to do. Two hundred years ago Adam Smith characterized the system as one that worked as if some unseen hand brought about the coordination.

ActualIy, economists do not usually make careful observa­tions, compare what they observe with alternatives they can imagine, and judge the results to be good. What they do is to infer, from what they take to be the behavior characteristics of people, some of the characteristics of the system as a whole, and deduce some evaluative conclusions. […]

The result is often characterized by the statement that “the market works.” By “market” is meant the entire complex of institutions within which people buy and sell and hire and are hired and borrow and lend and trade and contract and shop around to find bargains. A lot may be wrong with the deduc­tive reasoning of economists, but when they state the conclu­sion carefully and modestly they have a point. The free market may not do much, or anything, to distribute opportunities and resources among people the way you or I might like them dis­tributed, and it may not lead people to like the activities we wish they liked or to want to consume the things we wish they wanted to consume; it may encourage individualist rather than group values and it may fail to protect people against their own shortsightedness and self-indulgence. It may lead to asymmetrical personal relationships between employee and employer, lender and borrower, and attach too much status to material attainments. The market may even perform disas­trously where inflation and depression are concerned. Still, within those serious limitations, it does remarkably well in coordinating or harmonizing or integrating the efforts of myri­ads of self-serving individuals and organizations.
For my purpose there’s no need to reach a judgment about just how well the “free market” does what is attributed to it, or whether it does it at a price worth paying. I am interested here in how much promise the economist’s result has outside eco­nomics. If economists have studied the matter for two hundred years and many of them have concluded that a comparatively unrestricted free market is often an advantageous way of let­ting individuals interact with each other, should we suppose that the same is true in all the rest of those social activities, the ones that do not fall under the heading of economics, in which people impinge upon people as they go about pursuing their own interests? Presently I shall enumerate and discuss some of those other activities (aside from choosing seats in an audito­rium), but as illustration let me mention the languages we speak and how we speak them, whom we marry and whether we have children and what names we give ourchildren, whom we live near and whom we choose for friends, what games we play and what customs we develop, what fashions we pursue, whether we walk the streets or stay indoors, how we drive cars or make noise or smoke in public, the pets we keep and how we manage them. Then there are eating and drinking habits, and the times of day for going to lunch; littering and habits of cleanliness and sanitation; the transmission of jokes and gossip and news and useful information; the formation of parties and movements; and whether we wait in line far our turn.

All of these are activities in which people’s behavior is influenced by the behavior of others, or people care about the behavior of others, or they both care and are influenced. Most of these activities are substantially free of centralized manage­ment in many societies, including our own, or subject to sanc­tions and proscriptions that work indirectly. […] And though people may care how it all comes out in the aggregate, their own decisions and their own behavior are typ­ically motivated toward their own interests, and often impinged on by only a local fragment of the overall pattern. Hardly anybody who marries a tall person, or a short person, is much motivated by what it will do to the frequency distribu­tion of body height in the next generation. But the next gener­ation’s notions of what is tall and what is short will be affected by whether in this generation tall people marry tall people and short people short, or tall and short marry each other, or every­body marries at random (pp. 13-24).

Una Risposta to “Micromotives and Macrobehavior (2)”

  1. Gli individui non informati alla base del consenso democratico « Sbagliando s’impera Says:

    […] decisioni di agenti singoli (ne abbiamo parlato anche noi a proposito di Thomas Schelling – qui, qui e qui – e di Mark Buchanan) è di grande interesse “ideologico” sia per chi si […]


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