Synecological Systems Theory: An Alternative Foundation for Economic Inquiry

Abigail N Devereaux

Advisor: Richard E Wagner, PhD, Department of Economics

Committee Members: Peter J Boettke, Robert Axtell

Buchanan Hall, #D100
April 14, 2020, 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM


This thesis introduces an original theory of multiple games called synecological game theory and a concomitant framework for social theorizing called synecological systems theory. Synecological game theory is capable of describing the effects of institutional arrangements on the outcomes of gameplay through time. Synecology is a term borrowed from ecology that treats communities as arenas of interaction among species, in contrast to autecology, which treats individual species like duplicates of one another. Synecological systems theory helps theorists understand, describe, and simulate the evolution of entangled interactions, including the process of entanglement itself. Synecological game theory is the primary tool of synecological systems theory, where the systems in question are envisioned as evolving ecologies of games. Synecological game theory is a new branch of game theoretical analysis that describes how agents are able to solve collective action problems. It complements repeated and multistage game analyses, rather than replacing them. Like repeated and multistage games, synecological game theory is process-driven. Unlike repeated and multistage games, player knowledge, computational resources, and cognitive ability is strictly limited. Synecological game theory describes an extended system of action where not all players interact, play the same games, or have the same goals. This thesis contends that explicitly modeling the context of a game with suboptimal or perverse outcomes 1) exposes various institutional dependencies enabling perverse outcomes and which might be subverted through evolutionary or other processes, 2) expands the solution space and thus may provide avenues to different outcomes than predicted by traditional game analyses, and 3) endogenizes policy changes to within the system by requiring public interactions to be explicitly modeled and subject to the same computational, epistemological and cognitive limitations on policy makers as on other players in the system. Synecological systems theory fills a gap in current theoretical approaches to economic problems and can be said to be a kind of mesoeconomics, more systems-aware than microeconomics but more rooted in the action of heterogeneous agents than macroeconomics. This thesis builds a basic theoretical framework for synecological systems theory and provides a first evolutionary model to illustrate how synecological gameplay expands the explorable solution space by explicitly modeling traditionally implicit relationships. The thesis concludes by outlining a new frontier of exploration in social science opened up by the mesoeconomics of synecological systems theory: new questions economic theorists may ask, and the potential for new answers to questions long thought to be closed.