Explanations for action

People do what they do because they’re used to doing it, they think they’ll benefit from doing it, they think they ought to do it, or can’t help themselves. No doubt this is a familiar list to anyone who’s read social theory, which is to say, not to me. Can anyone give me its name?

I’ve been thinking about how to present Mike O’Hare’s typology of government actions (make/buy, tax/subsidize, prohibit/require, inform/exhort) to a group of first-year Master’s in Public Policy students. The typology is useful not because the categories are air-tight and non-overlapping (they aren’t) but because as a set they exhaust the possibilities. The eight categories can be employed both as heuristics for suggesting alternatives you hadn’t thought of and as a checklist to convince yourself you’ve at least poked in all the right directions.

It occurred to me that a similar checklist of explanations for human actions might be similarly useful. By “explanations” all I mean is phrases that could plausibly substitute for E in the sentence “X does Y because E.”

It doesn’t seem hard to do, with a list of thirteen that collapses into a list of four. Here’s the longer list:

* Novelty: X wants to try Y.

* Habit X is used to doing Y (in this situation).

* Custom X usually sees Y done in this situation by people he identifies with or wants to be identified with, or has heard people praised for doing Y or dispraised for not doing Y (in this situation).

* Pleasure X expects to enjoy doing Y, based either on experience or on report.

* Advantage X expects to get some benefit other than pleasure from doing Y, based again either on experience or on report.

* Complementarity Y is necessary to some other action O, which X has an independent reason to want. (X spends time and money buying gasoline because X wants to go somewhere by car.)

* Substitution X believes that doing Y avoids having to do undesirable activity U, which X wants to avoid. (X brushes his teeth to avoid having to go to the dentist.)

* Fear X believes that if he omits Y terrible thing T may happen. (He looks both ways to avoid being hit by a car.)

* Reputation X believes that he will acquire the good opinion of others by doing Y (in this situation), or lose it by omitting Y.

* Self-esteem X feels better about himself for doing Y, or worse about himself for omitting Y.

* Ethics X believes that people (in general, or people like himself in some way) ought to do Y (in this situation), or that he in particular ought do do Y (in this situation).

* Compulsion X can’t avoid doing Y (due to physical force, natural or acquired reflex, or weakness of will).

* Inadvertence X did Y unintentionally. (X didn’t kick the dog, he stumbled over the dog.)

By collapsing together all the forms of desire and calculation, positive and negative, together (novelty, pleasure, advantage, complementarity, substitution, and fear), all the motives related to opinion of right and wrong (reputation, self-esteem, and ethical belief), and individual and social habit together, we can make four categories out of the twelve:

* Benefit

* Habit

* Ethics

* Compulsion or inadvertence

Naturally there are overlaps: I could say that someone feeds a starving person because he thinks he ought to, because doing so makes him feel good, because not doing so makes him feel bad (by making him look cheap in his own eyes or because the suffering of the hungry person is unpleasant to him), because he doesn’t want to look stingy to others, because he’s habitually generous, and because generosity is a custom in his social group, and all of those statements could be true, or only some of them could be true and it could be hard to figure out which ones. That’s not a problem.

Omissions, by contrast, are a problem. If there are a few omissions, the list could be strengthened by including the omitted categories. If there are many omissions, the longer list probably isn’t of much use.

Here comes the bleg: I know that I’m sadly deficient in my reading of social theory. This seems obvious enough that it (or some other list) must already be well known as “Gazorum’s checklist” or “Merton’s thirteen explanations for action.” Can someone tell me the name of the wheel I’ve just reinvented, and point me to the original inventor? Or is this just too trivial and obvious to be worth saying even once?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com