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Robert G. Moser, Chair BAT 2.116, Mailcode A1800, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-5121

Spring 2010

GOV 355M • Human Behavior as Rational Action

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
38845 TTh
3:30 PM-5:00 PM
GAR 3.116
Lin, T

Course Description

The term "rational action" as used in the economic approach is generally equated with maximizing behavior. Individual human agents are assumed to have consistent and stable preferences over alternatives each of which is assigned some “utility.” Maximization entails choosing the course of action that yields the highest expected utility. One is rational to the extent one uses the best means to achieve one's goals. In this course we will learn a variety of social and political models based on such a notion of individual rationality and to investigate the collective consequences that can be logically inferred from its assumptions. In particular, we will find through the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” the “Tragedy of the Commons,” and the “Free-Rider Problem” a contrast between rational man and irrational society. Self-serving behavior of individuals does not usually lead to collectively satisfactory results. So this course is about the stories of the Prisoners, the Herdsmen, and the Free-Riders. As a matter of fact, we will show that the Dilemma, the Tragedy, and the Problem share essentially the same mathematical structure, and hence they are essentially the same story - a story about human destiny. We will also introduce the various approaches that have been proposed for the escape from such a destiny.

Grading Policy

1. First Paper (6-8 pages): 25% 2. Second Paper (6-8 pages): 25% 3. Third Paper (8-10 pages): 30% 4. Presentation: 10% 5. Attendance: 10%


1. Thomas C. Schelling (1978), Micromotives and Macrobehavior (Norton). 2. Robert Axelrod (1984), The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic Books). 3. Dennis Chong (1991), Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement (Chicago). 4. Elinor Ostrom (1990), Governing the Commons (Cambridge). 5. Howard Rheingold (2002), Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Basic Books)


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