The Origin and Evolution of Cultures

By Robert Boyd; Peter J. Richerson | Go to book overview

18
Rationality, Imitation,
and Tradition

When the quality of information is poor, people often rely on tradition in making economic decisions. What is the best retail markup percentage? When should one refinance one's home? What is the right safety factor in designing a building? Retailers, homeowners, and engineers typically make such decisions using traditionally acquired rules-of-thumb. This tactic has both advantages and disadvantages. It can be useful because solving problems from scratch is difficult and costly. On the other hand, the uncritical adoption of traditional solutions to problems can lead people to acquire outmoded or even completely unfounded beliefs. Peasants sometimes resist beneficial innovations proffered by development agencies and retain traditional agricultural practices; many contemporary Americans maintain the unfounded belief that there are innate differences between the members of different ethnic groups.

The fact that tradition is sometimes reliable and other times misleading creates an interesting problem for economists. Traditions often work; when they do, they are useful because they reduce the costs of acquiring information and lower the possibility of making errors. However, if everyone were to depend exclusively on traditional rules, what would cause traditional rules to be modified in response to changes in the environment, and what would initially cause useful and reliable behaviors to become traditions?

Conventional economic theory is not helpful in answering this question (Conlisk, 1980). Economists have adopted the Bayesian theory of rational choice as the natural extension of the utility-maximizing view of human behavior when there is uncertainty and use it as a positive theory to predict people's behavior in a wide variety of contexts (Hirshleifer and Riley, 1978). Within the context of this theory, a person's beliefs about the world are represented as a subjective

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