Academic journal article European Quarterly of Political Attitudes and Mentalities

The Art of the Possible. towards a Cognitive Model for Political Action Choice1

Academic journal article European Quarterly of Political Attitudes and Mentalities

The Art of the Possible. towards a Cognitive Model for Political Action Choice1

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

This paper represents the view of a computational social modeller, not an expert in political theory or literature. This is therefore somewhat of an outsider's view of what might be appropriate. It outlines a proposal for a possible cognitive model that directly addresses the question of action choice in political situations - ones where the actions of one actor (or actors) constrain what is possible for others, that is where some have power over another or over what may transpire.

I will start with some example situations to highlight the core elements of the proposed model. Both of these are highly simplified accounts of such situations, involving only a few of the different political viewpoints that might be involved, but they do highlight some important factors that (I argue) do need to be taken into account but are amenable to computational simulation.

In the discussions below, I will use a style of diagram that directly corresponds to the cognitive representations that might be used in a simulation of actors2. They represent states of the world (the nodes) and what transitions between these states (the arrows) are believed to be realistic possibilities. The transitions between states are labelled by the events or agent actions that may cause the transition. These actions are not necessarily those of the actor with the beliefs illustrated, since many transitions depend upon the actions of others (otherwise politics would be redundant). The states of the world come with their valency for the agent - that is, how desirable the agent considers them. However to keep the diagrams simple I will usually leave valency out, since it is clear by context.

This is an extension of the possible world semantics (PWS) of Kripke (1963). In standard PWS, nodes represent possible states of the world and directed arcs the possible transitions between those states. Here this is slightly extended to allow the accessible labelling of nodes and arcs, which can be explicitly reasoned about by the actors. Each actor may have a different "map" of what the relevant possible states of the world and the connecting actions are (and, very relevantly, who they think can do those actions). Of course, their mental maps may turn out to be wrong, and be updated by future events, but this snapshot of maps does form a coherent and powerful model for how such political decisions are made.

In the paper below I seek to show that this kind of reasoning is especially important for political reasoning and action.

2. Examples

The following examples are not tied to any particular observed situations, but are rather abstract examples to demonstrate the plausibility and potential explanatory power of the modelling approach.


Whether people protest does not only depend on the existence of a legitimate grievance and the danger in protesting (if any), but crucially on (a) whether they think protesting could change anything and (b) whether they think others will protest. Whether others protest is based on similar considerations. If people think that the effect of any protest will likely be blocked by those opposing change (i.e. there is no real possibility of contributing to any change) and the danger is high, any protest will be poorly attended despite the existence of a legitimate grievance. If people believe that there is a possibility that protest might have some effect then whether they protest will depend on their willingness to face any danger but also whether they think others will protest. If everybody thinks others will protest they may all come out to do so. If everybody thinks others would not join a protest, then they will not. This is particularly the case if they think they may only be in danger if there are only a few on the protest.

To make this clearer, let us draw some of the states of the world and the transitions considered possible by this citizen. Say these citizens live in a strong dictatorship. …

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