Rational choice theory

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Rational choice theory, also known as choice theory or rational action theory, is a framework for understanding and often formally modeling social and economic behavior.


  • A gain in social science is now the richness and variety of the types of inquiry that we undertake, and the fact that it is a worldwide discipline, which is enormously enriching this field. The cost of all of this is that as we grow more specialized, it becomes more and more difficult for anybody to grasp broad areas of the field. As we grow more specialized we may be less and less sensitive to aspects of the world that are outside of our speciality. Much as I respect aspects of rational choice theory, to see that as somehow a dominant way of thinking would be a terrible blunder, because, as I say, it’s important, but it cannot encompass the empirical variety and complexity of the world. Nothing can. But it can’t be done by rational choice. That can be a part, it should be a part, but social science is a much broader enterprise. It’s got to be.
    • Robert A. Dahl, in: Robert A. Dahl and Margaret Levi, "A Conversation with Robert A. Dahl", Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 2009.
  • The theory of rational action may therefore fail, because it is unable to produce unique prescriptions and predictions. It may also fail if the agents’ behavior does not conform to predictions, whether these are unique or not; that is, if the agents are irrational. There are multiple sources of irrationality, hot or cold.
  • We too are confused. Conventional economic reasoning today—ostensibly bloodied but apparently quite unbowed by its inability either to foresee or prevent the banking collapse—describes human behavior in terms of ‘rational choice’. We are all, it asserts, economic beings. We pursue our self-interest (defined as maximized economic advantage) with minimal reference to extraneous criteria such as altruism, self-denial, taste, cultural habit or collective purpose. Supplied with sufficient and correct information about ‘markets’—whether real ones or institutions for the sale and purchase of stocks and bonds—we shall make the best possible choices to our separate and common advantage.
    • Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (2010), Ch. 1 : The Way We Live Now
  • In general, social scientists overestimate the role of intentional human design in human affairs. This is especially true among economists and political scientists who employ the rational choice models economists have developed over the last century or so.
    • Alexander Rosenberg, "The Biological Character of Social Theory", published in Handbook on Evolution and Society (2015) edited by Jonathan H. Turner, Richard Machalek, Alexandra Maryanski

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