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The Stag Hunt Theory and the Formation Social of Contracts

by Karen Zhou


The Stag Hunt game, derived from Rousseau’s story, describes the following scenario: a group of two or more people can cooperate to hunt down the more rewarding stag or go their separate ways and hunt less rewarding hares. As we discussed in class, the catch is that the players involved must all work together in order to successfully hunt the stag and reap the rewards – once one person leaves the hunt for a hare, the stag hunt fails and those involved in it wind up with nothing.

Interestingly enough, the Stag Hunt theory can be used to describe social contracts within society, with the contract being the one to hunt the stag or achieve mutual benefit. A person’s choice to bind himself to a social contract depends entirely on his beliefs whether or not the other person’s or people’s choice. In a case with a random group of people, most would choose not to trust strangers with their success. But what is even more interesting (even despairing) is, when the situation is more localized and with a smaller network of acquainted people, most players still choose to hunt the hare as opposed to working together to hunt the stag. The article states that the only difference between the two scenarios is that the localized group decided to hunt hares more quickly. So it seems that the moral of the story is that we are selfish human beings with little patience or trust in others, even if that cooperation meant mutual benefit.

But the moral is not quite so bleak. The dynamics changes once the players learn with whom to interact with. When there is a strong leader present, players are likely to hunt the animal the leader chooses. Charisma unifies people supposedly because people aim to be as successful as the leader. In addition to leadership, the formation of a small but successful group is also likely to influence group dynamics. The stag hunters are likely to interact with other stag hunters to seek mutual benefit, while hare hunters rarely care with whom they interact with since they rather not depend on others for success. Since the payoff of hunting the stags is higher, these interactions lead to an environment in which the Stag Hunters prosper. And, seeing how successful the stag hunters are, most hare hunters will “convert” to stag hunters. Here, we have the formation of a modest social contract.

So it seems that, while we still are motivated by own self-interest, the addition of social dynamics to the two-person Stag Hunt game leads to a tendency of most people agreeing to hunt the stag. We can see through studying the Stag Hunt game theory that, even though we are selfish, we still are ironically aiming to for mutual benefit, and thus we tend to follow a such a social contract.


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September 2015