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The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences Hardcover – 5 Apr 2009

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (5 April 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691140529
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691140520
  • Product Dimensions: 3.2 x 18.4 x 26 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 953,376 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"The Bounds of Reason appears as two books in one. One part develops an epistemic theory of the rational actor as an alternative to what is provided by classical game theory, and the other part is a spirited plea to use behavioral game theory as a unifying tool in all behavioral sciences. Both objectives are highly valuable, but combing them both creates friction. Friction creates heat, and Gintis, who thrives gleefully on controversial issues, may be enjoying the prospect of heated discussions."--Karl Sigmund, American Scientist

"The book is a combination of an excellent textbook on game theory and an innovation treatise advocating the unification of the behavioural sciences and refounding of game theory on different epistemic foundations. . . . It is clearly an important contribution to the current debate over the rational actor model that the rise of behaviourial economics has provoked."--Oxonomics

"Gintis' work reflects an amazing breadth of knowledge of the behavioural sciences. He is ever ready to pose unusual questions and to defend unorthodox proposals. The Bounds of Reason is Gintis' most ambitious project to date, one that draws upon all of his extraordinary originality and learning."--Peter Vanderschraaf, Journal of Economics and Philosophy

From the Back Cover

"Gintis contributes importantly to a new insight gaining ascendancy: economy is about the unintended consequences of human sociality. This book is firmly in the revolutionary tradition of David Hume (Convention) and Adam Smith (Sympathy)."--Vernon L. Smith, Nobel Prize-winning economist

"Herbert Gintis makes a strong case that game theory--by predicting social norms--provides an essential tool for understanding human social behavior. More provocatively, Gintis suggests that humans have a genetic tendency to follow social norms even when it is to their disadvantage. These claims will be controversial--but they make for fascinating reading."--Eric S. Maskin, Nobel Laureate in Economics

"Recent findings in experimental economics have highlighted the need for a rigorous analytical theory of choice and strategic interaction for the social sciences that captures the unexpectedly wide variety of observed behaviors. In this exciting book, Gintis convincingly argues that an empirically informed game-theoretic approach goes a long way toward achieving this attractive goal."--Ernst Fehr, University of Zurich

"This brave and sweeping book deserves to be widely and carefully read."--Adam Brandenburger, New York University

"The Bounds of Reason makes a compelling case for game theory but at the same time warns readers that there is life beyond game theory and that all social science cannot be understood by this method alone. This splendid book makes skillful use of figures and algebra, and reads like a charm."--Kaushik Basu, Cornell University

"Excellent and stimulating, The Bounds of Reason is broad enough to encompass the central concepts and results in game theory, but discerning enough to omit peripheral developments. The book illustrates deep theoretical results using simple and entertaining examples, makes extensive use of agent-based models and simulation methods, and discusses thorny methodological issues with unusual clarity."--Rajiv Sethi, Barnard College, Columbia University

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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Andre Loureiro on 20 Aug. 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Excellent introduction to the formal modelling of Bounded Rationality in Behavioral Economics. It is a paladin of game theory in all social sciences.
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1 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A reader on 25 Aug. 2010
Format: Hardcover
Game theory is the unified theory of the behavioural sciences, such as psychology, sociology, economics and biology. It certainly makes sense with me. A wonderful book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 8 reviews
46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Great ideas for unification, that may fail to unify. 17 Mar. 2010
By JJ vd Weele - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book departs from a very good set of questions: How can it be that several different behavioral sciences - sociology, social psychology, economics, biology - all study human social behavior, yet have vastly different conceptual frameworks? And perhaps more importantly: is there a way to unify these frameworks?

Professor Herbert Gintis is uniquely qualified to tackle these questions: as any reader of his Amazon book reviews can see, he is very widely read in all the social sciences, and much of his own research is interdisciplinary. Gintis proposes that game theory - a mathematical framework for analyzing strategic interactions between individuals - can play the role of unifying framework for the social sciences. The first half of the book is dedicated to explaining the basic concepts of game theory, and how it applies to basic issues in human social behavior.

The second half of the book is dedicated to connecting game theory to the sociological concept of a social norm. A central point in Gintis' argument is the concept of correlated equilibrium. A correlated equilibrium augments the well-known Nash equilibrium by adding a correlating device. A correlating device - or choreographer as Gintis' calls it - essentially is a random variable with the distribution over the set of strategy profiles. The correlating device selects a strategy profile (one strategy for each player) and tells each player what to do according to this strategy profile. If it is optimal for each player to follow the advice of the choreographer given her beliefs about what the choreographer advised the other players, a correlating equilibrium exist. As an example of this one can think of a traffic light. When the traffic light tells you to drive, it is optimal to do so, because you know the traffic light simultaneously tells other people to hold still. Thus, the traffic light coordinates the actions on the intersection.

Gintis maintains that the correlating equilibrium is a better candidate to provide the technical underpinnings of the concept of a social norm than the Nash equilibrium. Gintis argues that the social norm functions as a correlating device, which assigns a particular action to everyone engaged in interaction. Actions are in equilibrium when it is in everybodies' interest to follow the social norm if they expect others to do so. The reason that the correlated equilibrium is more suited to describe a social norm than the Nash equilibrium lies in the conditions that underly both concepts. While the Nash equilibrium relies on the assumption that all players in the game have correct expectations about the actions of all the other players, the correlated equilibrium merely requires that people share a common prior belief about the actions recommended by the correlating device. If the correlating device is a social norm, these prior beliefs are induced by indicators that activate the social norm. How such prior belief can come to be shared is the subject of an entire chapter.

Professor Gintis should be praised for his commitment to methodological unification. Especially worthwhile in this respect is the last chapter, where he proposes several concepts that could form the shared theoretical background in all the social sciences. He also submits some sensible proposals, such as the use of the correlating equilibrium, and the comments on methodological individualism are provoking and stimulating.

However, for several reasons I fear that the book will have limited influence in actually bringing together scientific disciplines. First, its organization is at times mysterious, and never argued for. The connections between the chapters are often unclear. There are some parts that will not interest most readers, like the extensive treatment of certain paradoxes in epistemic game theory. This relates to the second problem: the book is rather technical in its exposition. This will make it hard for anyone who is not steeped in mathematics or does not already know game theory. And anyone who has taken the trouble to learn game theory up to the technical level that is required to read Gintis' book will probably be already convinced of its usefulness. Third, the book is lacking in good examples. Although the argument surrounding the correlated equilibrium is connected loosely to a story about flagging taxis, this raises more questions than it answers. For someone who want to convince sociologists that game theory can be connected to basic sociological ideas like norm following and role theories, this is a rather serious omission. Finally, there are some harsh dismissals of alternative methodologies in the social sciences which, although I tend to find them reasonable, are bound to bruise some egos. Altogether, it is hard to escape the impression that this is a book for game theorists, by a game theorist, which is puzzling given its stated aim.

In short, a stimulating and impressive book with sensible ideas. Unfortunately, I fear it lacks the didactic sensitivity to reach across scientific disciplines, and thereby does not quite fulfill its lofty aim.
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
Easy to read yet containing more content than most books 26 April 2009
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I saw this book on a counter in a book store. I saw the quote on the front from Nobel-Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith likening it to the works of David Hume and Adam Smith---strong praise indeed. I was intrigued, so I picked up the book and leafed through it. I couldn't finish it at the book store so I bought it and took it home.

I can't do justice to this book in a sentence or two. Professor Gintis sets an ambitious goal for this book--reconciling the various behavioral sciences (economics, psychology, biology, and sociology) with their different, indeed conflicting, explanations of human behavior. He examines how the insights into human behavior given by game theory are complemented by understandings drawn from other social sciences.

Although I have little familiarity with game theory, I found the book relatively easy to follow. The writing is clear---with many short sentences rather than paragraph-long, pseudo-academic clouds of words. The author appears to have put considerable effort in to making the material accessible---he avoids difficult mathematics even if doing so slightly expands the needed explanations.

This book is both thought provoking and enjoyable. I strongly recommend it to any graduate student or professional in the social sciences. I plan to give copies as gifts to a few people.

It's only $25.20 if you buy it through Amazon rather than the $35 I paid in a bookstore.


An engineer who values economics
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Both a great survey of an important field, and an important original work 5 Mar. 2011
By Aaron C. Brown - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is an easy-to-understand survey of modern game theory with no more (and no less) mathematics than is necessary for that. It is not comprehensive. It covers only material that is logically consistent and grounded in observation. But it argues convincingly that that subset is all you should care about. Defining the boundary sometimes gets close to splitting hairs, an occupational hazard of game theory and any field trying to distill rigorous foundations from complex evidence and competing research traditions. Overall, however, the author lays down clear and sensible rules that exclude a lot of nonsense and organize the remaining material in simple and satisfying ways. Few specialists will agree exactly with the treatment, but I think almost everyone will find it reasonably good.

Therefore, if you want to learn modern game theory with a few days work, buy this book. Read it with pencil and paper to work out examples and exercises (it's not a text with problems at the end of each chapter but the author does occasionally leave proofs to be supplied by the reader). Use the Internet for some key references. It does not demand any special training in mathematics, nothing beyond eighth grade techniques, but the logic and set arguments can be very intricate. It requires attention and a precise mind to follow, but not calculus or any other form of complex computation.

On top of this, the author offers his own thoughts on how central concepts in game theory drawn from biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology and economics can be combined in a consistent framework, that can serve as a foundation for all five fields. Each field studies emergent properties that cannot be derived from the foundation, so each will need its own applied game theory. But there is value in building each on a foundation that is both logically consistent and consistent with observation. The rigor from that will reduce errors and illuminate cross-disciplinary insights. I think he's probably right here, but even if he isn't, it's a valuable way to compare insights across fields.

Any researcher concerned with behavior of living things who does not already know all the material in this book should read it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Interesting argument obscured by the lack of structure 11 Jan. 2013
By Jen Badham - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Gintis argues (something like): (1) Game Theory is an excellent methodology for modelling behaviour but that certain neglected aspects must be properly incorporated. (2) One of those neglected aspects is that utilities to be maximised must include social preferences such as fairness, which people do actually want. (3) Another is that preferences/utilities are situational specific. (4) Another is that the optimum outcome is better modelled with social norms providing a coordination role, which has the effect of selecting particular sets of strategies. With these properly incorporated, Gintis concludes that various disciplines that consider behaviour (eg psychology, sociology, economics) can work with a common theoretical framework.

This is an interesting and compelling argument (disclaimer: I am a modelling social scientist so would be pre-inclined to agree). However, it is not presented well in the book. Various chapters deal particularly with points 1, 2 and 4 but with limited discussion of why those issues are being presented. Some chapters are also responses to potential limitations of the argument. Point 3 is really dealt with by reference as is the issue of gene-culture evolution, which is also important. The book would benefit from a clear statement of the argument and how each bit fits in, with a reminder at the start/end of each bit as to why it's there.

The book would also benefit from some layout conventions. There is a lot of mathematics embedded in sentences (not unusual in game theory). This mixes interpretation with notation and is generally unreadable. Instead, a presentation format that is followed for each game (eg motivating problem, players, strategy set, payoff matrix) would make it much easier to understand. If there was also separate text that provided the interpretation and why the game is interesting, a lay reader could follow the argument. The various theorems and proofs are mostly unnecessary. As it stands, I couldn't recommend this book to anyone who doesn't already have a good knowledge of game theory, behavioural economics, and preferably also gene-culture coevolution. On the other hand, it is most attractive to such a reader so may not be a problem.

Ultimately, while these problems interefered with readability, the underlying argument is interesting and the book includes a comprehensive and interesting discussion of behavioural game theory. I have therefore given it 4 stars despite my misgivings.

Finally, I didn't deduct anything for this, but the book feels like it has been reordered several times with no care. Terminology is used without definition (eg Pareto optimum) as if the definition has been deleted somewhere along the line; and the index is missing important topics (eg gene-culture coevolution) and has incorrect page numbers (eg CKR). This suggests poor editorial control.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Every economist should read this beautiful book! 10 Nov. 2010
By Daniel O. Cajueiro - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book aims at investigating whether some assumptions behind decision making models are valid. In order to do that Professor Gintis introduces several assumptions that support mainstream game theory and analyzes the bounds of these assumptions.

It is worth mentioning that it is not necessary to know game theory or decision theory to read the book. However, I believe that if one is acquainted with them, then the reading is more pleasant.

One interesting point is that the book calls a special attention to the so-called correlated equilibriums that is not very popular in economic theory and the justification for that is very suitable. The main idea is that the equilibrium correlation concept is able to provide a mechanism (a kind of convention or social norm) to coordinate different players who are indifferent among some strategies.

In fact, this book presents so many interesting issues that it is difficult to present all of them here. Among them, one may find well posed critiques to some assumptions used in mainstream economics, recent results of experimental economics, an interesting view of the above mentioned correlated equilibrium, an introduction to game theory, several examples of game theory, an agenda for unifying behavioral sciences (such as economics, biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology and political science) and so on....
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