Social Norms, Rational Choice and Belief Change

  • Horacio Arló-CostaEmail author
  • Arthur Paul Pedersen
Part of the Logic, Epistemology, and the Unity of Science book series (LEUS, volume 21)


This chapter elaborates on foundational issues in the social sciences and their impact on the contemporary theory of belief revision. Recent work in the foundations of economics has focused on the role external social norms play in choice. Amartya Sen (Econometrica 61(3): 495–521, 1993) has argued that the traditional rationalizability approach used in the theory of rational choice has serious problems accommodating the role of social norms. Sen’s more recent work (Language, world and reality 1996, pp. 19–31; Econometrica 65 (4): 745–779, 1997) proposes how one might represent social norms in the theory of choice, and in a very recent article Walter Bossert and Kotaro Suzumura (Social norms and rationality of choice, preprint, 2007) develop Sen’s proposal, offering an extension of the classical theory of choice that is capable of dealing with social norms.

The first part of this article offers an alternative functional characterization of the extended notion of rationality employed by Bossert and Suzumura (Social norms and rationality of choice, Preprint, 2007). This characterization, unlike the one offered in (Social norms and rationality of choice, Preprint, 2007), represents a norm-sensitive notion of rationality in terms of a pure functional constraint unmediated by a notion of revealed preference (something that is crucial for the application developed in the second part of this article). This functional characterization is formulated for general domains (as is Bossert and Suzumura’s characterization) and is therefore empirically more applicable than usual characterizations of rationality. Interestingly, the functional constraint we propose is a variant of a condition first entertained in Carlos Alchourrón et al. (The Journal of Symbolic Logic 50(2): 510–530, 1985) in the area of belief change.

The second part of this article applies the theory developed in the first part to the realm of belief change. We first point out that social norms can be invoked to concoct counterexamples against some postulates of belief change (like postulate (*7)) which are necessary for belief change to be relational. These examples constitute the epistemological counterpart of Sen’s counterexamples against condition α in rational choice (as a matter of fact, Rott (Change, choice and inference: A study of belief revision and nonmonotonic reasoning 2001) has showed that condition α and postulate (*7) are mutually mappable). These examples are variants of examples Rott (Synthese 139(2): 225–240, 2004) has recently presented. One of our main goals in this article consists in applying the theory developed in the first part to develop a theory of norm-inclusive belief change that circumvents the counterexamples. We offer a new axiomatization for belief change and we furnish correspondence results relating constraints of rational choice to postulates of belief change.


Social Norm Selection Function Rational Choice Choice Function Belief Revision 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

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