Published: June 17, 2020

Sven Steinmo, University of Colorado Boulder 

Published: 2020


This essay argues that in order to understand how institutions shape political choices and history we should go further toward understanding the interactive relationships between institutions and the cognitive mind. The article explores the significant body of research and literature developing in social and evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and decision theory. This literature has gone beyond the observation humans are not the individual utility maximizers stylized in early institutionalist theorizing. A massive body of experimental and empirical research clearly demonstrates, for example, that a) individuals only rarely have stable and hierarchical preferences, b) are generally quite unlikely to go through the cognitive effort implied in a ‘rational’ choice decision matrix, c) humans are efficient decision makers, but we have remarkable capacities to post-hoc justify choices and restructure our memories so that we can view our decisions as coherent. In the end the paper argues that public administration scholars need to adopt a non-reductionist approach to studying human motivation.

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