Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 July 2015
Eric Posner’s signaling theory of social norms holds that individuals adopt social norms in order to signal that they have a low discount rate (that is, they value the future more than the present), and are therefore reliable long-term cooperative partners. This paper radically expands Posner’s theory by incorporating internalization into his model (the sense that norms possess some sort of binding quality, an “ought to”). I do this by tethering Posner’s theory to an evolutionary model. I argue that internalization is an adaptive quality that enhances the individual’s ability to play Posner’s signaling game and was thus selected for. The idea that internalization is evolutionarily conditioned is not new; however, linking this to Posner’s theory of discount rate signals is, and doing so offers tremendous explanatory potential.
Part I identifies the limitations of Posner’s purely rational choice approach, argues for the necessity of including internalization, and then proposes a model that does so – what I call the Expanded Signaling Model of Norms (ESM). Part II examines the problems that arise when we embrace such a model. How this model answers some key criticisms plaguing sociobiology is also briefly explored. Part III then examines existing criticisms of Posner’s theory, demonstrating how the Expanded Signaling Model clearly resolves these issues. The paper concludes that incorporating internalization into Posner’s signaling model greatly broadens the explanatory reach of Posner’s theory, providing a measure of clarity and predictability regarding how and why norms are internalized – an important insight, as these beliefs form the normative underpinning to law.
Deepest thanks to Eric Posner at the University of Chicago for his helpful advice and suggestions. Thank you also to Neil Duxbury at the London School of Economics for reviewing an earlier draft of the present article.
1. Robert Ellickson writes, “ … the law-and-economics scholars believe that the law-and-society group is deficient in both sophistication and rigor, and the law-and-society scholars believe that the law-and-economics theorists are not only out of touch with reality but also short on humanity.” Ellickson, R.C., Order Without Law (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991) at 7.Google Scholar
3. As Posner says, “ … people bound by [norms] feel an emotional or psychological compulsion to obey the norms; norms have moral force.” Posner, Eric A., “Law, Economics, and Inefficient Norms” (1996) 144 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1697 at 1709CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The literature sometimes makes a distinction with regard to what I am here referring to broadly as internalization. For instance, Peter Huang speaks of emotions, specifically the moralistic kind. Huang, Peter H., “Reasons Within Passions: Affects and Attributions in Property Rights Bargaining” (2000) 79 Or. L. Rev. 435 Google Scholar; Huang, Peter & Wu, Ho-Mou, “More Order Without More Law: A Theory of Social Norms and Organizational Cultures” (1994) 10 J. L. Econ. & Org. 390 Google Scholar. McAdams cites the importance of the psychological need for esteem from others in his Esteem Theory of Norms. See McAdams, Richard H., “The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms” (1997) 96 Mich. L. Rev. 338 at 355-57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
4. “The rational-actor model has two basic underlying tenets. It assumes, first, that each individual pursues self-interested goals and, second, that each individual rationally chooses among various means for achieving those goals.” Ellickson, supra note 1 at 156.
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7. Ibid. at 19-21.
8. Ibid. at 8.
9. Ibid. at 46.
10. Indeed, internalization lies embedded at the heart of the natural law position, and it in fact explains the persistence of the embattled belief within jurisprudential circles.
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12. Leary, ibid. (“Since Darwin … all theories of emotion have assumed that the capacity for emotional experience evolved because it had adaptive value in helping organisms deal with recurrent challenges and opportunities in their physical and social environments.” [footnotes omitted]).
14. Scott, ibid.
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19. This is not to deny that some norms may arise due to their inherent survival value, or as solutions to coordination dilemmas—but these norms are nevertheless also co-opted as signals. And their function as signals contributes greatly to their persistence. Not all norms may start off as signals, but all norms end that way. See infra notes 103-07 and accompanying text.
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21. Though, admittedly, what I go on to contend below might be accused of being no more than a slightly more nuanced foray into reductionism.
22. Of course, that the rational choice model is entirely safe even within the field of economics is debatable.
24. For those unfamiliar with game theory, McAdams provides a concise summary: “ … two prisoners, A and B, are suspected of committing a crime together. If neither confesses, each knows they will each be convicted of a lesser offense and serve (say) three years in prison. The prosecutor then offers each the following deal, and each knows it is offered to the other: If you confess and the other does not, we will let you off with only one year in prison; if the other confesses and you do not, we will punish you with ten years in prison; if you both confess, you both will serve five years in prison. Confessing is the dominant strategy because it is the best strategy no matter what the other prisoner does. From A’s perspective, if B confesses, A is better off confessing and getting five years instead of ten; if B does not confess, A is better off confessing and getting one year instead of three. The reasoning is the same for B.” McAdams, supra note 2 at 628; see also Druzin, Bryan, “Law Without the State: The Theory of High Engagement and the Emergence of Spontaneous Legal Order within Commercial Systems” (2010) 41 Geo. J. Int’l L. 1 at 559, 599-605.Google Scholar
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37. Bicchieri, supra note 33 at 104.
38. Sunstein, supra note 36 at 905.
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46. Ellickson, supra note 1 at 156, n.3. However, this failure is, perhaps, matched equally by those on the Law and Society side in their failure to adequately explain the nature of these preferences, simply adducing concepts like “norm of cooperation” to explain cooperation. See Wendel, supra note 44 at 6. Elster compares this approach to explaining the soporific effects of opium in terms of its “dormative principle.” Elster, supra note 13 at 186. Indeed, as Ellickson explains, “A key shortcoming of the law-and-society school has been its failure to develop a theory of the content of norms … sociologists and other law-and-society scholars have tended to treat observed norms as exogenous, rather than as dependent variables whose contents are to be explained.” Ellickson, supra note 1 at 149.
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49. Posner acknowledges that people do behave in this fashion. Posner, supra note 5 at 38, 43. Note that this dilemma applies equally to norm enforcement. Posner responds by stating that “rational choice theory can be used to explain some social phenomena but not other social phenomena.” Ibid.
50. Some norm scholars make a distinction between shame and guilt, pointing out that shame is related to compliance, while guilt brings up issues of voluntary conformity. See, e.g., ibid. at 43. For our purposes, however, both are expressions of internalization.
51. I am in good company: Cooter also asserts a norm only exists if it has been internalized. Cooter, Robert D., “Decentralized Law for a Complex Economy: The Structural Approach to Adjudicating the New Law Merchant” (1996) 144 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1643 at 1661—66 Google Scholar.
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53. Posner, supra note 16 at 477.
54. McAdams, supra note 2 at 679.
55. Posner, supra note 5 at 26.
56. Posner, supra note 16 at 472.
57. Posner, supra note 5 at 43.
58. Ibid. at 43-44.
59. Ibid. at 44.
60. Interestingly, Posner’s earlier work did not exhibit this rejection of all things normative: “ … even a complete game-theoretic account of cooperative behavior would miss some essential aspects of norms. We say about most norms that people bound by them feel an emotional or psychological compulsion to obey the norms; norms have moral force … Game theory does not explain these phenomena.” Posner, supra note 3 at 1709.
61. For a critique of Posner’s theory in this respect, see McAdams, supra note 2 at 678-87.
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69. “Individuals do not eat in response to a rational calculus of caloric need. Instead, a complex set of forces causes one to ‘feel hungry.’” Scott, Robert E., “The Limits of Behavioral Theories of Law and Social Norms” (2000) 86 Va. L. Rev. 1603 at 1606CrossRefGoogle Scholar (referencing Frank, supra note 68).
70. Robert Trivers famously presented a similar idea in his 1971 paper The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Trivers argued that due to the difficulty involved in computing the complex cost-benefit ratios that underpin long-term reciprocity, human emotions evolved as a regulating mechanism. See Trivers, R.L., “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism” (1971) 46 Q. Rev. Biology 35 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. To facilitate this system of reciprocal altruism, “feelings and emotions—including guilt, fairness, moralistic aggression, gratitude, and sympathy—are part of the normal repertoire of human responses and are evoked in predictable situations.” Holcomb, Harmon & Bryon, Jason, “Sociobiology” (Stanford CA: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005).Google ScholarPubMed
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72. See Gintis, supra note 11(arguing that the ability to internalize norms evolves as it enhances individual fitness in situations where social behavior has become too complex to be evaluated piecemeal through individual rational assessment).
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83. Posner gives an illuminating explanation of racist norms as discount rate signals. See Posner, supra note 5 at 133-43.
84. Ibid. at 112-19.
85. See infra notes 161-68 and accompanying text.
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91. Scott, supra note 48 at 1606 (“Salient emotional reactions-such as guilt, anger, or empathy-mark one as a ‘cooperator’ who is able to make credible commitments concerning her future actions.”).
92. A point adamantly made by Wendel in his critique of Posner, see Wendel, supra note 44 at 30 (“ … it matters critically whether the theory is radically at odds with one’s subjective experiences. In these contexts, we may have reason to reject the rational-choice model in favor of one that employs explanatory concepts that are congruent with those actually deployed by the deliberating individual.”).
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97. A bold assertion could be made here that follows from this line of reasoning: Morality does not exist outside the world of these discount signals. The arc of our moral universe is wholly constructed from this signaling game—morality is an emergent property. When one considers that approximately 4% of all males (sociopaths) do not experience moral sentiment at all, the onus would seem to rest with those claiming its objective validity—if they cannot meet this burden, one would have to conclude that it is not an objective truth but rather a subjective concoction. However, a Kantian universal moral truth is not necessarily denied here. One could equally make the case that evolution merely provides otherwise selfish organisms a degree of clarity in regards to certain moral truths where and when it confers an evolutionary advantage.
99. An important point regarding rational choice theory should, however, be understood here. Arguably, behavior based upon self-interest is just as much a product of internalization as selfless behavior. It is simply the internationalization of a different order, one that imparts a normative quality to self-interest. Indeed, a rational calculus is employed, but it is predicated on a fundamental assumption that is no less normative in nature. The tremendous survival advantage of selfishness ensured it was evolutionarily selected for to a degree. The rationality of rational choice is that decisions are made through a careful cost benefit analysis; however, the basis for this analysis (self-interest) is still very much normative. My point here is that in either case—rational choice, or the blind internalization of norms—internalization is present. Even the most self-serving individuals believe they are normatively justified in their self-interest. Indeed, an argument could be made that the difference is more the nature of the internalization then the presence or absence of it.
100. See supra note 12.
101. Or not internalize as in the case of pure opportunists. What is therefore meant here is the degree of internalization has been selected for.
102. Posner, supra note 5 at 37 (“[W]hat might emerge as a conventional signal in any group is to a certain extent arbitrary.”).
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113. Posner, supra note 5.
115. Sugden, supra note 98 at 93.
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125. Elster, supra note 81 at 88.
126. Bicchieri, supra note 64 at 838.
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177. Using both hands when presenting someone with money or a gift is a norm in some parts of China. Having lived in China for the better part of decade, I personally internalized this norm.
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210. Indeed, the “defining characteristic of sociopaths is their apparent lack of sincere social emotions ….” Mealey, supra note 82 at 135. In the context of our present discussion sociopathy can thus be understood as adaptive; it is a viable evolutionary strategy, accounting for its resilient presence in human psychology.
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214. Ibid. at 398.
215. Ibid. at 397.
216. Ibid. at 398.
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224. Becker, Gary S., Grossman, Michael & Murphy, Kevin M., “Rational Addiction and the Effect of Price on Consumption” (1991) 81 Aea Papers and Proceedings 237 Google Scholar; see also Glaeser, Edward L., “Economic approach to crime and punishment” in Newman, Peter, ed., The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998).Google Scholar
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226. Ibid. at 35.
227. McAdams, supra note 2 at 672.
228. See Posner, supra note 5 at 18.
229. Ibid. at 43.
230. Ibid. at 44.
231. See Mealey, L., “The Sociobiology of Sociopathy: An Integrated Model” (1995) 18 Behavioral and Brain Sciences 523 CrossRefGoogle Scholar (identifying hypothetical ancestral conditions that would make sociopathy adaptive); but see Crusio, Wim E., “The Sociopathy of Sociobiology” (1995) 18 Behavioral & Brain Sciences 552 CrossRefGoogle Scholar (charging that Mealey’s evolutionary reasoning is logically flawed, and the import of the cited genetic evidence exaggerated).
232. The gender gap in sociopathy rates is interesting (“3%-4% of the male population and less than 1% of the female population”). See Mealey, supra note 82 at 133. One possible explanation for this gap is that as the physically stronger gender, males were evolutionarily better positioned to pursue an opportunist strategy based on aggression. This could go far in explaining the higher rates of criminality and propensity towards violence found in males.
233. The limits of even deeply internalized norms speaks to this fact. Even the strongest cooperators may abandon their moral convictions given the right circumstances. Consider situations of mass panic, or life and death me-or-you situations, where feelings of right and wrong fall by the wayside to facilitate survival. We even accept this inherent normative flexibility to a degree in others; for instance, we judge less harshly an individual who takes an innocent life when a gun is held to their own head. This assumption is so deep-seated in fact, this is a legal defense, i.e. the defense of necessity. See infra notes 241-42 and accompanying text.
234. Posner, supra note 5 at 19.
235. See Mealey’s concept of secondary sociopaths, Mealey, supra note 82 at 163; see also the “Mach” scale (as in Machiavellian) developed by Christie & Geis, supra note 221.
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238. See Smith, supra note 77 at 164-66.
239. Mealey, supra note 82 at 135 (speaking about sociopathy).
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244. Cooke, David J., “Psychopathy Across Cultures” in Cooke, David J., Forth, Adelle E. & Hare, Robert D., eds., Psychopathy: Theory, Research, and Implications for Society (Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997) 13 at 14Google Scholar.
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247. Ibid. at 138.
248. Posner, supra note 5 at 22.
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252. Wendel, supra note 44 at 40.
253. Kahan, supra note 200.
255. See Wendel, supra note 44 at 27; Duxbury, supra note 48 at 725-33.
256. Wendel, supra note 44 at 36.
257. Duxbury, supra note 48 at 732.
258. Ibid. at 725.
259. Ibid. at 727.
260. Ibid. at 733.
261. See Wendel, supra note 44 at 25, 29; Madison, supra note 198.
262. Wendel, supra note 44 at 37.
263. Madison, supra note 198; see also Schaefer, Elmer J., “Predicting Defection” (2002) 36 U. Rich. L. Rev. 443 at 445-46Google Scholar (pointing out that people signal to communicate other characteristics besides discount rates).
264. Wendel, supra note 44 at 29.
265. Ibid. at 25.
266. Ibid. at 34.
267. See supra notes 161-68, 205-08 and accompanying text.
268. Wendel, supra note 44 at 32.
269. McAdams, supra note 2 at 666.
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274. Ibid. at 391.
275. Ibid. at 394.
276. McAdams, supra note 2 at 666.
277. Ibid. at 655.
278. Wendel, supra note 44 at 31.
279. McAdams, supra note 2 at 655.
280. Wendel, supra note 44 at 31.
281. Hardin, supra note 204 at 1826.
282. Ibid. at 1826-27.
283. Ibid. at 1826.
284. McAdams agrees: “Absent a highly predictive alternative theory, I think one can justify cutting normative motivations out of the explanation only if one of the following is true: (1) normative motivations do not actually exist, or (2) normative motivations, while they exist, are unrelated to the behavior we call norms. Posner explicitly rejects the first proposition, and the second is simply not tenable.” McAdams, supra note 2 at 681.
285. Cooter, supra note 157.
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