Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in BETTER THAN CONSCIOUS? DECISION MAKING, THE HUMAN MIND, AND IMPLICATIONS FOR INSTITUTIONS, ed. Christoph Engel and Wolf Singer (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), pp. 325-342. Copyright 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology & the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. Used by permission.


Just as many aspects of individual decisions are sometimes called "unconscious" or "automatic," we know that some institutions have evolved through "unconscious," nondeliberative mechanisms. Their function can also be largely nondeliberative, as in the case of some institutions that may structure behavior without requiring any reflection on the part of the participants. On the other hand, political institutions exist for the purpose of bringing deliberative mechanisms to bear on institutions in the hope of changing them for the better. The immense project of building an integrated explanation of institutions from individual brains to nations-has only barely begun. In this chapter, we report on our discussions that attempted to sketch the mechanisms that connect individuals to large-scale institutions. We begin with a discussion of current thought on the design of individual decision making. If institutions regulate behavior, then presumably the mechanisms that have evolved to produce individual behavior will be relevant to the broader enterprise of integrating these two scales of explanation. Then we explore ways in which institutions may have evolved, both as a result of individual decision making and as a result of processes distinct from those that govern individual behavior. We approach this topic from two perspectives. Seen one way, unconscious psychological forces constrain the design of institutions, sometimes powerfully. Seen another way, unconscious population-level processes create functional institutional design that few social architects could conceive of with their individual deliberate faculties.