Rational Choice Theory: Do We Make Decisions Logically?

A very influential theory related to Psychology, Sociology and Economics.

Rational Choice Theory

The Theory of Rational Choice (RER) is a proposal that arises in the social sciences applied especially to economics, but that has been transferred to the analysis of human behavior. SRT pays attention to how an individual performs the action of ‘choosing’. That is, it asks about the cognitive and social patterns through which an individual directs her actions.

In this article we will see what the Theory of Rational Choice is, how it arose and where it has been applied, and finally we will present some criticisms that have been made recently.

What is Rational Choice Theory (RER)?

Rational Choice Theory (RER) is a school of thought based on the proposition that individual choices are made according to individual personal preferences.

For this reason, TER is also a model for explaining the way we make decisions (especially in the economic and political context, but it is also applied in others where it is important to know how we decide actions and how this affects on a large scale) . The term “rational” generally refers to the fact that the choices we make are consistent with our personal preferences, derived from them in a logical way.

What is a rational choice according to the TER?

A choice is the action of selecting one of several available alternatives and conducting our conduct in accordance with this selection. Sometimes the choices are implicit, other times they are explicit. That is, sometimes we take them automatically, especially if they correspond to basic needs or to maintain our integrity or survival.

On the other hand, explicit choices are those that we consciously (rational) make in accordance with what we consider to be the most appropriate option for our interests.

The proposal of the TER, very broadly speaking, is that human beings choose in a fundamentally rational way. That is, based on the ability to think and imagine the possible secondary effects of the alternatives that we have before a decision and from there select the alternatives that are the most appropriate for our benefit at that moment (under a cost-benefit logic).

The latter would also imply that human beings are sufficiently independent, and we have the sufficient capacity to generate emotional self-control, so that there are no other variables other than reason itself, when making decisions.

Where does it come from?

The Theory of Rational Choice is usually associated with an economic paradigm (precisely because it helped generate the model of cost-benefit calculations). However, it is a theory through which many other elements that shape human behavior and societies can be understood.

In the context of the social sciences, Rational Choice Theory represented an important theoretical and methodological transformation. It arises mainly in the American intellectual context during the second half of the 20th century and in reaction to welfare economics models.

In the area of ​​political science, the TER criticized a large part of the current paradigms within the American academic context, which was later transferred to the analysis of the disciplines of psychology and sociology. In the latter, the ERT asks about the implications of self-interest, own experience and intentionality, in human action and in research. That is, he is interested in methodological individualism.

Broadly speaking, it is a “Critique of the excess of mathematical narcissism versus the demands of realism that social science must have.” Thus, Rational Choice Theory has been an attempt to orient social disciplines toward rigorous knowledge and practices.

Do we make decisions “rationally”? Some criticisms of the TER

Some problems that they have generated are about the use, sometimes intuitive, of the word “rational”. Vidal de la Rosa (2008) argues that for SRT, human behaviors are merely instrumental and while the cultural context is what determines the alternatives on which we can decide, then the behaviors would also be predetermined by the culture.

Likewise, the polysemy of the word “rationality” makes it difficult to use it as a basis for social theory, since it is difficult to homogenize and with that it is difficult for researchers to establish communication with each other, and then put the knowledge into practice face to face. to society.

In the same sense, “rationality” can easily be confused with “intentionality”, and ERT does not usually address the difference and relationships between implicit and explicit choices either. For a few years the latter has been investigated in laboratory experiments. Some of these investigations analyze the different variables both cognitive and environmental that can affect a supposedly rational decision.

Finally, methodological individualism has been criticized, that is, it has been questioned whether interest is the reason for the behavior, and therefore it is asked if that interest is valid as a way of making scientific knowledge.

Bibliographic references:

  • Encyclopedia Britannica. (2018). Rational Choice Theory. Retrieved June 1, 2018.Available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/rational-choice-theory.
  • Vidal de la Rosa, G. (2008). The Theory of Rational Choice in the social sciences. Sociology (Mexico). 23 (67): 221-236.
  • Staddon, JER (1995). Schedule Combinations and Choice: Experiment and Theory. Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis, 21: 163-274.

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