Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
Introduction to Political Science

2.4 The Importance of Context for Political Decisions

Introduction to Political Science2.4 The Importance of Context for Political Decisions

Menu
Table of contents
  1. Preface
  2. Introduction to Political Science
    1. 1 What Is Politics and What Is Political Science?
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 Defining Politics: Who Gets What, When, Where, How, and Why?
      3. 1.2 Public Policy, Public Interest, and Power
      4. 1.3 Political Science: The Systematic Study of Politics
      5. 1.4 Normative Political Science
      6. 1.5 Empirical Political Science
      7. 1.6 Individuals, Groups, Institutions, and International Relations
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  3. Individuals
    1. 2 Political Behavior Is Human Behavior
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 What Goals Should We Seek in Politics?
      3. 2.2 Why Do Humans Make the Political Choices That They Do?
      4. 2.3 Human Behavior Is Partially Predictable
      5. 2.4 The Importance of Context for Political Decisions
      6. Summary
      7. Key Terms
      8. Review Questions
      9. Suggested Readings
    2. 3 Political Ideology
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 The Classical Origins of Western Political Ideologies
      3. 3.2 The Laws of Nature and the Social Contract
      4. 3.3 The Development of Varieties of Liberalism
      5. 3.4 Nationalism, Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism
      6. 3.5 Contemporary Democratic Liberalism
      7. 3.6 Contemporary Ideologies Further to the Political Left
      8. 3.7 Contemporary Ideologies Further to the Political Right
      9. 3.8 Political Ideologies That Reject Political Ideology: Scientific Socialism, Burkeanism, and Religious Extremism
      10. Summary
      11. Key Terms
      12. Review Questions
      13. Suggested Readings
    3. 4 Civil Liberties
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 The Freedom of the Individual
      3. 4.2 Constitutions and Individual Liberties
      4. 4.3 The Right to Privacy, Self-Determination, and the Freedom of Ideas
      5. 4.4 Freedom of Movement
      6. 4.5 The Rights of the Accused
      7. 4.6 The Right to a Healthy Environment
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 5 Political Participation and Public Opinion
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 What Is Political Participation?
      3. 5.2 What Limits Voter Participation in the United States?
      4. 5.3 How Do Individuals Participate Other Than Voting?
      5. 5.4 What Is Public Opinion and Where Does It Come From?
      6. 5.5 How Do We Measure Public Opinion?
      7. 5.6 Why Is Public Opinion Important?
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  4. Groups
    1. 6 The Fundamentals of Group Political Activity
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 Political Socialization: The Ways People Become Political
      3. 6.2 Political Culture: How People Express Their Political Identity
      4. 6.3 Collective Dilemmas: Making Group Decisions
      5. 6.4 Collective Action Problems: The Problem of Incentives
      6. 6.5 Resolving Collective Action Problems
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
    2. 7 Civil Rights
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Civil Rights and Constitutionalism
      3. 7.2 Political Culture and Majority-Minority Relations
      4. 7.3 Civil Rights Abuses
      5. 7.4 Civil Rights Movements
      6. 7.5 How Do Governments Bring About Civil Rights Change?
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
    3. 8 Interest Groups, Political Parties, and Elections
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 What Is an Interest Group?
      3. 8.2 What Are the Pros and Cons of Interest Groups?
      4. 8.3 Political Parties
      5. 8.4 What Are the Limits of Parties?
      6. 8.5 What Are Elections and Who Participates?
      7. 8.6 How Do People Participate in Elections?
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  5. Institutions
    1. 9 Legislatures
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 What Do Legislatures Do?
      3. 9.2 What Is the Difference between Parliamentary and Presidential Systems?
      4. 9.3 What Is the Difference between Unicameral and Bicameral Systems?
      5. 9.4 The Decline of Legislative Influence
      6. Summary
      7. Key Terms
      8. Review Questions
      9. Suggested Readings
    2. 10 Executives, Cabinets, and Bureaucracies
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Democracies: Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semi-Presidential Regimes
      3. 10.2 The Executive in Presidential Regimes
      4. 10.3 The Executive in Parliamentary Regimes
      5. 10.4 Advantages, Disadvantages, and Challenges of Presidential and Parliamentary Regimes
      6. 10.5 Semi-Presidential Regimes
      7. 10.6 How Do Cabinets Function in Presidential and Parliamentary Regimes?
      8. 10.7 What Are the Purpose and Function of Bureaucracies?
      9. Summary
      10. Key Terms
      11. Review Questions
      12. Suggested Readings
    3. 11 Courts and Law
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 What Is the Judiciary?
      3. 11.2 How Does the Judiciary Take Action?
      4. 11.3 Types of Legal Systems around the World
      5. 11.4 Criminal versus Civil Laws
      6. 11.5 Due Process and Judicial Fairness
      7. 11.6 Judicial Review versus Executive Sovereignty
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 12 The Media
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 The Media as a Political Institution: Why Does It Matter?
      3. 12.2 Types of Media and the Changing Media Landscape
      4. 12.3 How Do Media and Elections Interact?
      5. 12.4 The Internet and Social Media
      6. 12.5 Declining Global Trust in the Media
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
  6. States and International Relations
    1. 13 Governing Regimes
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Contemporary Government Regimes: Power, Legitimacy, and Authority
      3. 13.2 Categorizing Contemporary Regimes
      4. 13.3 Recent Trends: Illiberal Representative Regimes
      5. Summary
      6. Key Terms
      7. Review Questions
      8. Suggested Readings
    2. 14 International Relations
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 What Is Power, and How Do We Measure It?
      3. 14.2 Understanding the Different Types of Actors in the International System
      4. 14.3 Sovereignty and Anarchy
      5. 14.4 Using Levels of Analysis to Understand Conflict
      6. 14.5 The Realist Worldview
      7. 14.6 The Liberal and Social Worldview
      8. 14.7 Critical Worldviews
      9. Summary
      10. Key Terms
      11. Review Questions
      12. Suggested Readings
    3. 15 International Law and International Organizations
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 The Problem of Global Governance
      3. 15.2 International Law
      4. 15.3 The United Nations and Global Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)
      5. 15.4 How Do Regional IGOs Contribute to Global Governance?
      6. 15.5 Non-state Actors: Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)
      7. 15.6 Non-state Actors beyond NGOs
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 16 International Political Economy
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 The Origins of International Political Economy
      3. 16.2 The Advent of the Liberal Economy
      4. 16.3 The Bretton Woods Institutions
      5. 16.4 The Post–Cold War Period and Modernization Theory
      6. 16.5 From the 1990s to the 2020s: Current Issues in IPE
      7. 16.6 Considering Poverty, Inequality, and the Environmental Crisis
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  7. References
  8. Index

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain why political scientists use games.
  • Describe the ultimatum game.
  • Discuss what the ultimatum game reveals about human nature.
  • Identify ways in which context matters in political decision-making.

How individuals behave politically depends on a wide variety of factors. These factors, considered together, constitute the context in which the decisions take place. This section will bring these various elements together by examining the ultimatum game.

Rules

Political scientists often use games to interpret and predict human behavior. A game is a set of rules, a set of choices, and a set of decisions. The rules establish what a player is allowed to do. The choices are what the player can do at any turn. The decisions are what the player actually chooses to do. Political scientists examine both hypothetical games, seeking to understand what are the best moves given a set of rules and a specific situation, and real games in which they can observe the decisions that players actually make under various circumstances.

The ultimatum game is one way to explore the various dimensions of human decision-making. The game involves two players, Player A and Player B. Player A is given a sum of money—say, $10—and has to decide whether and how much of this money to offer to Player B. Player A can offer none of the money, some of it, or all of it. Player B can accept the offer or reject it; hence, the offer is a “take it or leave it” ultimatum. If Player B accepts, both players keep their share of the money. If Player B rejects the offer, neither player keeps any money. As an example, if Player A offers Player B $4 and Player B accepts, Player A keeps $6 and Player B keeps $4. If Player B rejects the offer, neither player takes home anything.

Scholars can use these rules and choices to make predictions about what players might do and why they might make these choices. As it turns out, this game has actually been played in a wide variety of settings, and so there is evidence of how humans actually behave.

Situations

What do you think Player A and Player B are likely to do? How would you play the ultimatum game? You may have a quick-thinking intuitive sense of how much you would offer if you were Player A or of the smallest amount you would demand if you were Player B. Further slow reasoning might lead you to change your mind.

Let’s consider some possibilities. It is possible, but highly unlikely, that Player A would offer the entire $10 to Player B, as few people are entirely altruistic. In contrast, Player A could offer Player B nothing, but this is also unlikely because Player B would almost certainly reject that offer, leaving each player with nothing.

It is most likely that Player A will offer an amount that falls somewhere between $0 and $10. But what amount? If both players were entirely rational—that is, if they were entirely strategic and self-interested, Player A would make a very small offer, maybe $1, calculating that Player B would reluctantly accept the offer. Player A might think that Player B would of course want a larger offer but that Player B would accept this small offer because getting even $1 is better than getting nothing. In a perfectly rational world, players would make and accept highly uneven offers. In a perfectly cooperative world, in contrast, players would offer and accept 50-50 splits.

 

Video

The Ultimatum Game

Experiments in which people played the ultimatum game have shown the complexity and variations in, and therefore the difficulties in predicting, human behavior.

Experimental data demonstrates that in reality players are not entirely self-interested.74 Players routinely reject offers that deviate substantially from a 50-50 split. The split need not be 50-50 for Player B to consider it fair, however; players commonly offer and accept $6-4 or even $7-3 splits. Political scientists suggest a variety of reasons why Player B might be willing to reject unfair offers, to voluntarily sacrifice any financial gain. One key explanation is that players seek not only to maximize their own selfish interests, but also to ensure basic fairness. For these players, those who violate fairness must be punished.

There are other strategic reasons to make fair offers or to reject unfair ones. Player A will likely be uncertain of the minimal offer that Player B will accept: given this uncertainty, it makes sense for Player A to make offers that are pretty fair. If they play multiple times in the same roles, it would be sensible for Player B to reject an unfair offer because, once an unfair offer is accepted, it is possible to predict that unfair offers will continue to be made. If I learn that Player B will accept $2, why would I offer B more? Offers are more likely to be fair—closer to a 50-50 split—if players already know each other and the game is played face-to-face, as compared to strangers playing the game remotely on computers.

The total amount of the prize also surely matters. Player B is likely to be more willing to refuse $1 in a $10 game than to refuse $100,000 in a $1,000,000 game, even though the fairness of the offers are mathematically the same. What if the rules changed so that Player B got to keep their share of the pot when they reject the offer, with only Player A losing their portion? This rule change would shift power to Player B, and Player A would almost certainly make more generous offers.

The ultimatum game is a simplified illustration of interactions involving bargaining strategies, but it offers abundant lessons for politics, whether one is looking inside parliamentary institutions, considering the relations between politicians and their constituents, or studying mass movements. In many political situations, there is some resource—tangible or intangible—that one set of actors has and another one wants, and the players have to decide how to share that resource. The real game of politics is much more complicated. Usually there are many players, and those players may seek to change the rules while they are playing. The size and nature of the resource under negotiation may not be set in stone, and the players are not limited to making, accepting, or rejecting offers, but may also use threats and deception. The more complex a negotiation, the more difficult it is to predict how it will play out.

Connecting Courses

Game Theory

 

The ultimatum game is one of many strategic games that examine human decision-making given varied rules and contexts. To learn more about them, you can explore courses in game theory. These courses can be highly abstract and technical, or they can be more applied; they are often offered within economics departments. In a game theory course you will have the chance to learn about the best (or optimal) strategies for winning a game. The games studied in this course are all political: they involve two or more players seeking to obtain their goals (to win the game) given a set of rules and a specific situation. What is the best strategy, the one most likely to win the game? In some games, at some points, the best strategy might be to be generous to your opponent; at other times, you might want to be vengeful.

Do you know how you learn best?
Kinetic by OpenStax offers access to innovative study tools designed to help you maximize your learning potential.
Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-political-science/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-political-science/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© May 20, 2022 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.