Game theory and group reasoning: The role of emergent coordination

This talk explores the role of emergent coordination between individuals in understanding group reasoning. Emergent coordination (Knoblich, Butterfill, & Sebanz, 2011) can help us to develop a better understanding of the sense of we-agency as conceptualized by Pacherie (2014). I will argue that a combination of emergent coordination and we-agency can shape the practical reasons that are available to the agent. In order to understand the impact of this idea, and to be able to apply it in the first place, I will compare two proposals in game theory. The first consists of Bacharach’s ideas (2006) on game theory and his account of the impact of the different frames of reasoning that an individual might be in, depending on his or her social situation. The second is Sugden’s perspective on game theory, which starts with the idea that team reasoning requires common knowledge, i.e. individuals require mutual assurance that team reasoning will take place (Sugden, 2003). How does emergent coordination play a role in their accounts? And is that in line with how emergent coordination is discussed in both the philosophy and psychology of joint action?

Game Theory

In game theory it is almost universally presupposed that agency is invested in individuals: each agent acts on his or her own preferences. Bacharach has successfully pointed out shortcomings in current game theoretic theories, especially when it comes to explaining Hi-Lo dilemmas. Hi-Lo games have two outcomes that are both Nash Equilibria (high-high and low-low). Although intuition tells us what the ‘obvious’ right answer is, standard game theory has no way of predicting or commending one equilibrium over the other. Bacharach and Sugden each suggest a different solution to the problem posed in these games. Each has a different take on what explains the motivation for and general principle of team reasoning (asking “what should we do?”, rather than asking “what should I do?”). This difference depends on their differing views on the importance of common knowledge and how group membership is constituted.

Bacharach’s ideas are founded on the idea that people team reason when they identify with a group. Group identification changes their frame (a set of concepts an agent uses when thinking about his or her situation). Bacharach distinguishes three main frames; personal, relational and collective. The we-frame (collective) is induced by situations like the Hi-Lo game. This need not always happen and the individual cannot willfully decide to be in one frame or another.

According to Sugden, an agent will not commit him- or herself to team reasoning unless he or she has some form of assurance that the others will also act on team reasoning. In mutually assured team reasoning two “reasons to believe” have to be in place: (I) Each identifies with the group and acknowledges the group payoff function as the objective of the group, and (II) each endorses and acts on mutually assured team reasoning.

To conclude, the basic idea of team reasoning is that agents consider which combination of actions would best promote the team’s objective. This raises the question, however, whether they decide based on the joint goal, or whether the joint goal comes about through joint reasoning.

Emergent Coordination

In the second part of the talk I will focus on processes of a different level, that of motor level coordination and emergent coordination. Emergent coordination –synchrony and alignment with another individual – effects the willingness to cooperate, as well as the liking of the other individual involved and results in a more pro-social attitude in general (Knoblich et al., 2011). At the same time, liking increases emergent coordination too. Hence, there is a bi-directional influence that influences the willingness of people to cooperate, most probably also in Hi-Lo games. The level of emergent coordination influences the extent to which individuals identify with the group, both when the group already has a (joint) goal, and when there is no goal (yet). This can influence the level of we-agency that is experienced by the individuals (Pacherie, 2014).

One problem in Hi-Lo games is that these games are structured in such a way that there is no room for emergent coordination to arise. This is very unlikely to be the case in any real life situation, even when a Hi-Lo situation arises (as happens often according to Bacharach). As any Hi-Lo game will be situated, there seems room for emergent coordination to arise in almost any of those situations (either before the dilemma arises or during the presentation and solving of the dilemma). This might endorse Bacharach’s ideas on framing, as emergent coordination could be a way to cash out the route to different frames of reasoning. The idea in Bacharach, however, that we have no influence over the frame from which we reason, might be unappealing to many. A remaining question I would like to discuss is whether there is any room left for the kind of approach that we find in Sugden, where we (sometimes) choose to reason from either an individual or group perspective.


Bacharach, M. (2006). Beyond Individual Choice: Teams and Frames in Game Theory. Princeton University Press.

Knoblich, G., Butterfill, S. A., & Sebanz, N. (2011). Psychological Research on Joint Action : Theory and Data.

Pacherie, E. (2014). How Does It Feel to Act Together? Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 13(1), 25–46.

Sugden, R. (2003). The logic of team reasoning. Philosophical Explorations, 6, 165–181.