Simon on Social Identification: Two Connections with Bounded Rationality

The twelfth in a series of excerpts from Minds, Models and Milieux: Commemorating the Centennial of the Birth of Herbert Simon.

Rouslan Koumakhov

Social identifications are one of Herbert Simon’s most recurrent themes. Starting with Administrative Behavior (hereafter, AB) (Simon, 1947/1997), he investigates that theme throughout his scientific work on an impressive number of occasions. Perhaps it is section 3, entitled Perception and identifications, of chapter 6 (“Cognitive Limits on Rationality”), in March and Simon (1958/1993), that symbolizes Simon’s main concern in this issue – its connection with human rationality and emphasis on every individual’s multiple “belongings” to social groups (in the broad sense, i.e. from primary groups to formal organizations to the whole of society). From this general standpoint, “identification with groups is the major selective mechanism controlling human attention in organizations (and elsewhere) (…)” (Simon, 1993, p. 137). Accordingly, social identification is a process allowing people to stabilize their anticipations, to coordinate perceptions and interpretations of reality. While this tendency to identify with groups appears necessary to build and maintain social systems, it also leads to mimetic opinions and behavioral conformity.

Compared with the notion of bounded rationality, however, Simon’s analysis of identification was only taken up to a limited extent by the social and human sciences that he so strongly influenced. Because his analysis is complex and appeals to major concepts developed in related disciplines, this begs the question of the exact place of social identification in Simon’s account of decision process and social interaction. My argument is that, in this account, not only is there a strong connection between bounded rationality and social identification, but also that such connection implies value systems and cognitive representations. Considered in this manner, the problem of identification is central in Simon’s decision-making and social theory, with its focus on mental states and understanding reality.