George Tsebelis, Nested Games (1991), Introduction, Chapter 1.


Summary: All actors are rational. If they appear not to be, it’s because we’ve made a mistake in observing what their possible options are, or what their optimal action is. The observer tends to focus on a particular game (i.e. a politician’s single vote) while failing to see that the actor is likely involved in nested games. The actor could be competing in concurrent or nested games, or acting to achieve institutional change to affect the prospects of future games. All hail rationality.


  • Why do Actors choose the ‘non-rational’ path? Why do they opt for apparently suboptimal choices?
  • Considering rationality within a more complex context – what seems irrational in the short game is logical in the long run
  • Rationality is equated with self-optimization
  • Takes into account ‘nested games’ and ‘simultaneous games’
  • General argument: Democracies have built in situations where games are not played in isolation and, therefore, where choices may appear to be suboptimal

Nested Games: The Logic of Apparently Suboptimal Choice

  • Assumption that human activity is goal oriented and instrumental and actors try to maximize their goal achievement
  • This is a pure rational choice approach to comparative politics

Two cases where an actor chooses suboptimally (Tsebelis ignores these cases as unimportant)”

  • he cannot choose rationally
  • he makes a mistake

Two cases where the observer may not recognize the optimal course of actions:

  • Observer makes a mistake about what the optimal action is
  • Observer has a limited idea of the set of possible actions
  • Apparently sub-optimal actions are frequently causes of disagreement between actor and observer
  • The observer tends to focus on one game, while a choice can be seen as optimal when the whole network of games is considered
  • Games in multiple arenas
  • Games about the rules of the games (institutional design)
  • For games in multiple arenas, any of the actor’s moves may not be optimal with respect to the entire network of arenas in which the actor is involved
  • Institutional changes can be explained as conscious planning by the actors involved in order to increase the number of alternatives, thereby enlarging strategy space
  • In the presence of adequate information, if actors do not choose what appears to be optimizing strategies, it is because they are involved in nested games: games in multiple arenas, or insitutional design
  • (seems a bit deterministic…)