This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) on how international institutions promote cooperation.

In that lecture, I presented the epiphenomenal critique, which I think establishes an important baseline, then went on to discuss specific mechanisms by which institutions might solve coordination problems, collaboration problems, and problems of trust/fear of exploitation (the three primary explanations I offered for why states sometimes leave money lying on the ground). The first half of the activity sought to illustrate the epiphenomenal critique more clearly, while the second tests their understanding of the theoretical model I used to demonstrate the even if institutions merely serve as screening mechanisms, they may still facilitate cooperation that would not otherwise occur (as I’ve discussed here before).

The decisions they faced in the first part were pretty simple.

My expectation, which proved accurate, was that most of those who chose to cooperate would sign the treaty while most of those who did not would not. A significant number of non-cooperators signed the treaty, but fewer than did not, and only one cooperator chose not to sign the treaty. Thus, their behavior produced a fairly strong, though not perfect, correlation between cooperative behavior support for an international treaty that, by design, absolutely did not matter at all.

This didn’t seem to impress them much. I’m not sure if that’s because the epiphenomenal critique is so intuitive that they already understood it clearly or if this exercise failed to clarify things or what. I guess I’ll find out how well they understand this point after they submit their answers to the midterm.

The second half was more challenging.

 

Here, the students face the same set of decisions as player 1 in the Model of Reassurance I discussed in the lecture they were to have listened to before class. In that model, there is an equilibrium where the blue type of player 1 (which is the type they’ve been assigned here) proposes an agreement, then cooperates with 2 if and only if 2 accepts the agreement, while 2 accepts the agreement and then cooperates if blue, but rejects the agreement and does not cooperate if red. Two important conditions for that equilibrium are: the red type finds the cost of the agreement too high for it to be worth mimicking the behavior of the blue type in hopes of tricking player 1 into trusting them; yet the blue type finds that cost acceptable. Note that these conditions are met here. So a student who is really on top of the material would notice that if they propose agreements to all five countries then cooperate only with those that accept would have no reason to fear exploitation and could expect to earn more points (30 if just one of the five other countries turned out to be blue, which was precisely what happened when I determined their types randomly) than a student who adopted any other strategy.

Unfortunately, very few students selected the optimal strategy.

What most did, strangely enough, was to propose no agreements and cooperate with no one. Now, I understand the latter part. If you failed to understand how institutions can eliminate trust problems, particularly under conditions that just so happen to be met here, then it would make sense to play it safe. In fact, I set things up to ensure that cooperation would not be appealing if the trust problem couldn’t be solved. But what I don’t quite get is why so few of the non-cooperative students proposed agreements. I guess they were afraid that the other side would accept, thereby costing them five points, but weren’t willing to trust that anyone who accepted the agreement would cooperate. Or, more likely, they didn’t understand that they could condition their answer to the second part on whether the other side accepted their agreement. And that’s undoubtedly because I made them submit their answers before I assigned types to the five countries (which was key to determining whether they’d accept agreements, and which I wanted them to see me do so they didn’t think the outcome was rigged), but I instructed them to tell me separately what they would do in response to acceptance as well as what they would do in response to rejection. Sadly, virtually no one did so. I thought I was clear about that, but obviously I wasn’t clear enough. Next time, I’ll have to really drive home the fact that they not only can but should tell me what they would after each possible response by the other side to their proposal.

So, I guess I’ll be seeing a lot of them again on Monday, when they get their usual chance to redo the activity.

On the upside, when I explained why the optimal strategy was what it was, most of them seemed to understand. I would have liked to see some of them figure out on their own, as that would indicate that they had a good grasp of the key point of the lecture the activity was paired with, but at least the activity served its purpose.