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Social rationality

Page history last edited by KLarcer 8 years, 4 months ago

Social Rationality


Social rationality refers to the type of practical rationality displayed by individuals in multi-agent decision-making situations where possible outcomes are limited—for example, in game-theoretical situations. It describes the norms according to which we make decisions when potential beneficial results of possible choices are limited by interactions with other agents who have their own preferences. Social rationality is therefore tied with multi-agent rationality and game theory.


The traditional account of practical rationality is that rationality is normative, establishing a standard against which our actions are measured. It is further defined as the capacity to manipulate beliefs, desires and other propositional attitudes attributed from an intentional stance (Dennett 1971). A rational agent is construed as an individual capable of possessing such propositional attitudes, combined with an understanding of objective truth (Davidson 1982). Finally, rationality can be either practical: relating to decision, behavior and action, or theoretical: the rationality of beliefs, ideas and thought.


In single-agent decision situations, we use practical rationality as a means of assessing the coherence of our choices and actions as well as how effectively these behaviors act in achieving a desired result (Stueber 2006). Decision theory, then, concerns the actions of a single individual, particularly the actions and choices of a single individual in situations where choices are made within the “parameters of an independent environment” (Hollis-Sugden 1993). In environments involving interaction with other rational agents, the application of practical rationality and decision theory becomes game theory. Here, an individual agent has preference orderings—possible outcomes of their choices range from beneficial to harmful—and are ranked not only according to how much they benefit the rational agent but also according to the benefits or harms bestowed on other affected agents. Thus game theory involves rational choice in multi-agent situations in which each agent is aware (see Common Knowledge) of the rationality of the other agents and in which the possible outcomes of the situation depend on the choices of more than one agent (Hollis-Sugden). Social rationality, then, is the type of practical rationality that governs the decisions made in Game theory situations, when we are forced to interact strategically with other rational agents.


The Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis of social rationality proposes that the advanced cognitive processes and abilities we possess are the result of adaptations to the complexities of social life (as opposed to ecological intelligence). On this account, these abilities allow us to manipulate others, whether through deception, alliance or some other means, and to detect manipulation and deception in order to maximize our benefits in social situations, despite the limitations imposed by other agents whose choices affect our options (Whiten).


Thus, social rationality encompasses Machiavellian intelligence and game-theory, while individual rationality deals with decision theory and interactions in a natural, rather than social, environment.





  • Bruin, Boudewijn d.(2005) “Game Theory in Philosophy” Topoi 24 (2) 197-208.
  • Davidson, D. (1982). Rational Animals. dialectica, 36(4), 317-327.
  • Dennett, D.C. (1971) “Intentional Systems” The Journal of Philosophy. 68(4), 87-    106.
  • Hollis, M and Sugden, R. (1993) “Rationality in Action” Mind 102. 1-11.
  • Stueber, K. (2006). Rediscovering Empathy : Agency, Folk Psychology, and the     Human Sciences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Whiten, A. (2008). MIT Encylopedia of Cognitive Sciences: “Machiavellian     Intelligence Hypothesis”


- Kristina LaRocca-Cerrone, University of Toronto





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