Yes, Virginia, Groups Choose

One of the central tenets of methodological individualism is often stated as, "Only individuals choose."

Well, of course it is possible to simply define choice as something only an individual can do. And if one does that, well, what is there to say? But empirically, we can clearly differentiate between individual choices and group choices:

"The ability to work as a group is older than humanity. For instance, mountain gorillas decide when to end an afternoon siesta by using 'close call' signals. When everyone in the group has been heard from, and the signaling reaches a certain intensity, then the rest period is over. Likewise, capuchin monkeys use trilling sounds to cooperatively decide when and where the troop should move...

"Similar patterns of social decision making are common in many animals and virtually all primates."

Alex Pentland, Social Physics, pp. 62-63

It is simply not the case that a gorilla choosing individually when to stop eating leaves is no different than the gorilla troop deciding to end their siesta. "Group decisions" are distinctly, empirically different from individual choices. And it takes years of training in methodological individualist dogma to become unable to detect the difference between choosing to go to a movie and happening to find a number of your friends there, and choosing as a group, with your friends, to go to a movie.

9 comments:

  1. Uh, who is Virginia? Virginia the state?

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    1. "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

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  2. As an interesting sidenote... In "The Red Queen" Matt Ridley criticises Hayek (referring to "Law, Liberty and Legislation") for implying that society came into being once evolution had produced Humans. He points out that society or proto-societies exist in animals too and pre-dates humans.

    As you say, if you want to define choice as something very specific then the methodological individualist idea has merit. Economists think this way because for economic decisions it's often the most informative point-of-view.

    For example, if you were to ask the question "why do my colleagues and I all go to lunch at the same time", then a group explanation is more appropriate. If you were to ask "why are my colleagues and I all paid differently and all spend their money on different things" then the individual perspective is more useful.

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  3. "But empirically, we can clearly differentiate between individual choices and group choices"

    Possibly, but you can also imagine grey areas where its not clear if its a group decision or just a collection of individual decisions. (For example: An informal arrangement to go out walking - some people show up and some don't).

    It seems more consistent to say "all decisions are individual decisions , but some decision have a greater 'group' element than others".

    than to say

    "all decisions can be broken into ether 'group decisions' or 'individual decisions' "

















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  4. An excellent example is honeybees choosing a nesting site. It is clearly a decision, it is clearly made as a group, and it is not just all the bees independently thinking it out and coming to the same conclusion.
    And it's not the queen deciding. It is the swarm deciding.

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  5. Did you stop publishing my comments ?

    Seems a bit harsh - but oh well.

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    1. oh, well the last 2 or 3 never got published - seems unlikely they all just got lost but no big deal.

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  6. "... unable to detect the difference between choosing to go to a movie and happening to find a number of your friends there, and choosing as a group, with your friends, to go to a movie"

    Isn't the point of MI that we can't differentiate between these two scenarios without understanding the motivations of the individuals? Not that there is no difference between the two, but that the group choice can only be perceived through the lens of the individual choice.

    Perhaps the gorillas wake up because all of that signaling is just too noisy to sleep through!

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    1. "Isn't the point of MI that we can't differentiate between these two scenarios without understanding the motivations of the individuals?"

      Well, then, that claim would be false: note we can clearly detect group choice in animals without knowing their motivation.

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