Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice is a general grouping of theoretical perspectives, which explains social outcomes by constructing models of the person's actions and the social context they are in.

Rational choice theory builds on the idea that actions are rational, when the individual calculates the likely costs and benefits of any action before proceeding to act. Homans (1961) is a pioneering figure in establishing rational choice theory, which created a basic framework of exchange theory. His assumptions derive from behavioral psychology.

According to Scott (2000), sociologists and political scientists have tried to build theories around the idea that all action is fundamentally ‘rational' in character. In these circumstances, individuals calculate the likely costs and benefits of any action before deciding what to do. This approach is known as rational choice theory.

Theorists of rational choice tend to concentrate on trends within the microeconomics of society. It is considered that some economists have broached areas in which social scientists would generally specialize. Mathematical models of rational action have gained influence in a wide spectrum of areas, such as voting and coalition formation in political science, ethnic minority relations, social mobility and class reproduction to crime and marriage.

Rational choice is concerned with economic theories, which predominantly focus on production, distribution and consumption of goods and services and the market. Theorists argue that these economic principles can be applied to human interactions, with variables such as time, information, approval and prestige.

Theorists believe that individuals act within the conditions and information they have available to them. As it is not possible for individuals to have everything they want, they need to make choices in relation to what they want and how they will get it. By applying rational choice theory, individuals must anticipate the outcomes of alternative courses of action and calculate which will be best for them. Heath (1976) suggests that rational people will choose the alternative that is likely to give them the greatest satisfaction.

Within the sociological perspective, rational choice theory has been criticized for its lack of realism by assuming that people calculate the expected consequences of their options and choose the best of them. Research shows that people often act impulsively, emotionally and merely by habit and tradition. It can be argued if people are informed and calculating as rational choice theorists assume them to be, decisions on issues such as jobs, spouses and children would not be problematic. It is suggested from a sociological stance that the emotive factor makes rational choice theory implausible.

In a shopping context, critics considered that rational choice theory is questionable as it is impossible for individuals to have the ability to be aware of the full range of products and services available, given the plethora of offerings on the market. It is also considered that the complexities of products and services are too much for the person to have sufficient knowledge of each item to allow them to make an informed decision. It could also be argued that individuals do not have the time to weigh up all the choices facing them in contemporary society.

This field of study can also be applied to policy choice in politics. Neiman and Stambough (1998) explain how rational choice theories are "the most important challenge to conventional, pluralist politics." They examine how rational models are used to decide which policies a government implements and how a government assesses the consequences of its actions.

Neiman and Stambough believe that rational models of policy choice have emerged as the pre-eminent methods of addressing major issues in politics. They argue that across a wide range of policy areas, including criminal justice, agriculture, housing and medical care, the tools employed by rational choice theorists have become of paramount importance in judging if public policies have been successful.

Rational choice theories are concerned with social rather than individual outcomes. It is questioned whether the aggregate outcome of a rational decision be rational or desirable. If individuals have no incentive to deviate from their choice of action, given the behavior of others, this is called stable equilibria, whereby social outcomes can be both unintended and undesirable. Rational choice theory has also been criticized for focusing too much on motivational assumptions.

Rational Choice Theory: Selected full-text books and articles

Preferences, Institutions, and Rational Choice By Keith Dowding; Desmond King Clarendon Press, 1995
How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory By Andrew T. Guzman Oxford University Press, 2008
Commitment Problems in the Theory of Rational Choice By Frank, Robert H Texas Law Review, Vol. 81, No. 7, June 2003
Collective and State Violence in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Limits of Classical Rational-Choice Theory By Brym, Robert Canadian Review of Sociology, Vol. 49, No. 3, August 2012
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Integration of Rational Choice and Self-Efficacy Theories: A Situational Analysis of Student Misconduct By Ogilvie, James; Stewart, Anna Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, Vol. 43, No. 1, April 2010
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Tracing the Rational Choice Origins of Social Capital: Is Social Capital a Neo-Liberal "Trojan Horse"? By Spies-Butcher, Ben Australian Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 37, No. 2, May 2002
Pourquoi Pas? Rational Choice as a Basic Theory of HRM By Matiaske, Wenzel Management Revue, Vol. 15, No. 2, January 1, 2004
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Political Science: The State of the Discipline II By Ada W. Finifter American Political Science Association, 1993
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Formal Rational Choice Theory: A Cumulative Science of Politics"
Human Nature and the Limits of Science By John Dupre Clarendon, 2001
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "Rational Choice Theory"
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