Book chapter

Computational Models of Political Decision Making (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


A growing body of research uses computational models to study political decision making and behavior such as voter turnout, vote choice, party competition, social networks, and cooperation in social dilemmas. Advances in the computational modeling of political decision making are closely related to the idea of bounded rationality. In effect, models of full rationality can usually be analyzed by hand, but models of bounded rationality are complex and require computer-assisted analysis. Most computational models used in the literature are agent based, that is, they specify how decisions are made by autonomous, interacting computational objects called "agents." However, an important distinction can be made between two classes of models based on the approaches they take: behavioral and information processing. Behavioral models specify relatively simple behavioral rules to relax the standard rationality assumption and investigate the system-level consequences of these rules in conjunction with deductive, game-theoretic analysis. In contrast, information-processing models specify the underlying information processes of decision making—the way political actors receive, store, retrieve, and use information to make judgment and choice—within the structural constraints on human cognition, and examine whether and how these processes produce the observed behavior in question at the individual or aggregate level. Compared to behavioral models, information-processing computational models are relatively rare, new to political scientists, and underexplored. However, focusing on the underlying mental processes of decision making that must occur within the structural constraints on human cognition, they have the potential to provide a more general, psychologically realistic account for political decision making and behavior.