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Joint actions, commitments and the need to belong


This paper concerns the credibility problem for commitments. Commitments play an important role in cooperative human interactions and can dramatically improve the performance of joint actions by stabilizing expectations, reducing the uncertainty of the interaction, providing reasons to cooperate or improving action coordination. However, commitments can only serve these functions if they are credible in the first place. What is it then that insures the credibility of commitments? To answer this question, we need to provide an account of what motivates us to abide by our commitments. We first discuss two conceptions of the nature of the commitments present in joint action and of the norms that govern them. We contend that while normative considerations may have some motivational force, there are reasons to doubt that they, by themselves, could provide a sufficient motivational basis to fully explain why agents abide by their commitments and thus why their commitments are credible. In the next two sections, we discuss two proposals regarding further sources of motivation, reputation management and social emotions. We argue that while reputation management and social emotions certainly play a role in motivating us to act as committed, there are both theoretical and empirical reasons to think that neither captures the most basic motivational force at work in sustaining commitments. We propose instead that the need to belong, i.e., the need to affiliate with others and form long-lasting bonds with them, is what primarily motivates us to interact and engage with those around us and act so as to preserve and reinforce the bonds we have forged with them. We argue that the need to belong is a more basic proximate motivation for conforming to commitments, in the sense both that affiliative behaviors are evidenced much earlier in human development than either reputation management or social emotions and that the need to belong is at least part of an explanation of why we care for our reputation and why we care about others’ assessments of our behavior.

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  1. 1.

    [1] Note that, as a limiting case, the two agents can be one and the same. For instance, when Bratman (1987) argues a future-directed intention involves a characteristic commitment to future action, the agent who forms the future-directed intention is both the author and the recipient of the commitment it involves.

  2. 2.

    Note that we are not suggesting that this is a project Bratman or Gilbert themselves are engaged in or would condone, only that it is a possibility one could in principle wish to explore.

  3. 3.

    See Godman et al. (2014) for a similar point regarding Robert Sugden (2000)'s resentment hypothesis according to which we are motivated to meet the expectations of others because we are averse to their resentment. As Godman et al. point out, "it raises the question why others’ resentment should matter to us anyway” (p. 569).

  4. 4.

    Although Rusch’s and Luege’s results seem to suggest that there are differences between inclinations to cooperate with partners and to cooperate with strangers, these results are in conflict with other studies involving variables of the same type (see Andreoni and Croson 2008 for a review). A possible explanation of the contradictory results could be due to the fact that in Rusch and Luege’s experiments, the agents are not more cooperative with those they perceive as partners for reasons involving preferences or motivations, but what is being manipulated are the agents' expectations (thanks to an anonymous referee for pointing this out to us). One possible answer, though extremely speculative, might be that even in such a case, the NTB can modulate the force with which the expectations of others affect our decisions in this type of game. However, in the absence of further studies along these lines, we can only indicate that the support this evidence provides for our hypothesis is weak.

  5. 5.

    Certainly, one may wonder why humans have a need to belong that (some) other animal species lack. However, this question seems to fall beyond the scope of psychological explanation and ontogenetic development. Rather, like asking why cold-blooded animals need to warm up under the sun, asking for the origin of the need to belong calls for explanations in terms of the evolutionary history.

  6. 6.

    Another endogenous mechanism may appeal to a low-level notion of reputation management. Although Silver and Shaw (2018) argue that managing one’s reputation requires high-level capacities (an awareness of the distinction between self and others’ evaluations; and a motivation to achieve positive evaluations from others and assess others’ accurately), one might argue that agents could develop different mechanisms to increase others’ positive beliefs about them without themselves being aware that others could have such beliefs. In principle, one agent could detect a correlation between following the strategies of fulfilling others' expectations and an increment in her success in certain cooperative contexts without realizing that this is due to the increment in their belief that she is a reputable partner. Now the question is what kind of mechanism can increase reputation without one’s awareness of it? Given the high cultural variation of what is considered reputable and the empirical evidence presented above, an inborn capacity for reputation seems to be an implausible solution. Such mechanisms could only rely on some sort of emotional endowment of the type analyzed in Sect. 5 or 7. Thus, this route seems to collapse into some of the other alternatives presented in this paper.


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We would like to thank John Michael and two anonymous referees for their valuable comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper. We would also like to thank the participants to the workshop “Layers of Collective Intentionality” held in Vienna in August 2018, the participants to the workshop “Human–Robot Joint Action: Refining the understanding of joint action through an interdisciplinary perspective” held in Paris in September 2018 and the members of the Philosophy Department at the University of Granada. This research was supported by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche [Grant Number ANR-16-CE33-0017] and by the EUR Frontiers in Cognition [Grant Number ANR-17-EURE-0017].

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Fernández Castro, V., Pacherie, E. Joint actions, commitments and the need to belong. Synthese (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02535-0

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  • Joint action
  • Commitment
  • Credibility
  • Practical rationality
  • Social normativity
  • Reputation
  • Social emotions
  • Need to belong