Explaining the Apparent Violation of the Value Assumption: Expanding Self-Interest

How are we to account for this apparent violation of the value assumption of the theory of rational choice? Two explanations are most common. Neither involves an overthrow of the assumption, but substantial revision.

Enlightened Self-Interest

The first explanation is based on expansion of the notion of self-interest to include enlightened self-interest. There are a number of different ways that self-interest may be enlightened. These different ways may be loosely grouped into two categories: (1) consideration of longterm consequences and (2) attention to side payments (Dawes, van de Kragt, & Orbell 1990). One may recognize that headlong pursuit of immediate personal gain in a social dilemma will lead to less long-term personal gain than will acting for the common good—if one can be assured that others will do the same. As a result, one may be willing to act in a way that promotes the common good in the short term as an instrumental means to maximize self-benefit in the long term.

Side payments include nontangible self-benefits of acting for the common good, self-benefits such as social and self-approval (e.g., admiration of others; personal pride at a good deed done,) and avoidance of social and self-punishments (e.g., censure for violation of norms of fairness or reciprocity; pangs of conscience—Dawes, van de Kragt, & Orbell 1990). One may anticipate criticism, accusations, guilt, and shame if one favors oneself in a social dilemma at the expense of the group, especially if others do not. Avoidance of these punishments, as well as anticipation of social and self-rewards, may tip the balance toward acting for the common good as an instrumental means to maximize overall self-benefit (Bixenstein, Levitt, & Wilson, 1966; Bonacich, 1972; Dawes, 1980; Dawes, McTavish, & Shaklee, 1977).

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