Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

Early Engagements with the ‘Theory of Games and Economic Behavior’ at the Cowles Commission, 1944-1955 – An Acknowledgement Analysis

Herfeld Catherine, University of Zurich
Catherine Doehne, University of Zurich

We examine how the informal social structures of a research institution impact the promotion of a scientific innovation and shape the conditions for its success. Our case study is the set of tools contained in John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, which we take to be exemplary of a scientific innovation. More specifically, we analyze the early engagement of mathematical economists with the new set of tools contained in the Theory of Games against the social and institutional context of the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics, where those tools came to be adopted in the period of 1944 to 1955. From data collected on acknowledgements in academic publications and working papers produced at the commission, we reconstruct the informal social structure that was in place at Cowles during the period under analysis. We compile empirical evidence that particular individuals and the positions they held at Cowles partly explain the initial adoption and dissemination of those tools. Opinion leaders who occupied a particular role in the informal social structure were crucial in fostering the initial adoption process. We highlight the role of individuals in administrative functions – specifically the directors of research Jacob Marschak and Tjalling Koopmans – in framing the research program and promoting the early engagement with the new set of tools among scholars at Cowles. By analyzing the distinct social positions of those actors, we argue that 'academic opinion leaders' and 'pioneers' fostered initial adoption not by fiat but rather through leading by example. Thereby, they encouraged early adopters via imitation. Our results suggest that there is more to the process of establishing a successful scientific innovation than simply developing a new theory that stands up against empirical test. They also reveal the importance of formal and informal organizational structures in explaining the adoption of scientific innovations.

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Keywords: Cowles Commission, Jacob Marschak, History of rational choice theories

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