IR Theory and Behavioral Economics

At this early point in the semester, I’m introducing students to the basics of international relations theories. This past week I used a simple exercise in behavioral economics to demonstrate liberalism. I scribbled numbers ranging from 17 to 91 on small pieces of scrap paper and randomly distributed them to students. Instructions were as follows:

  • You are all hungry and you all like to eat chocolate donuts.

  • Each person’s hunger will be satisfied by half of a donut.

  • Donuts cost $1.00 each.

  • The donut store only sells whole donuts.

  • The piece of paper that you have lists the amount of money, in cents, that you have in your pocket.

  • Your objective is to satisfy your hunger by getting half of a donut.

  • Once you achieve that objective, sit down.

As expected, students wandered about the room asking each other how much money each of them had and quickly paired off when they found that pooling their money resulted in a sum of at least 100, demonstrating that cooperation can allow parties with the same interest to achieve that interest. Some students were left hungry because they could not find a partner with enough money — another expected outcome.

What I found most interesting about the exercise was that none of the students whose combined sums of money exceeded a dollar volunteered to give any of their extra, unused money to other students. None of the students who remained in need asked classmates who had already sat down for money either.

When I asked the class why no altruistic actions or requests occurred, they were perplexed. Each student had focused on the same strategy to achieve the specified goal. Once the goal was achieved, the “winners” did not consider the plight of others. The “losers” assumed they had “lost” and gave up instead of trying alternative methods to obtain money. This led to a discussion of whether nation-states behave in the same manner.

2 Replies to “IR Theory and Behavioral Economics”

    1. It’s a launching point for discussing reasons why cooperation does or does not occur, which is a fundamental aspect of liberal IR theory.

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