PHD THESIS SUMMARY: Rational Choice Theory: Its Merits and Limits in Explaining and Predicting Cultural Behaviour

By Adanali, Yurdagul Kilinc | Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

PHD THESIS SUMMARY: Rational Choice Theory: Its Merits and Limits in Explaining and Predicting Cultural Behaviour


Adanali, Yurdagul Kilinc, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics


PHD THESIS SUMMARY: Rational choice theory: its merits and limits in explaining and predicting cultural behaviour

The questions this dissertation addresses are: (1) What principles must govern the decision-making process in order for persons to be called instrumentally rational? (2) Are these principles satisfactory for human rationality in all domains? To answer these questions, I focus on rational choice theory (RCT) and public choice theory (PCT), which are extensively studied as examples of instrumental rationality in contemporary debates in philosophy and economics. To see their merits and to determine their limits, I have applied RCT and PCT to cultural behavior, given that it is mainly motivated and determined by the norms of a given culture, and that it can be contrasted with behavior that is initiated and chosen by the individual for reasons other than norms.

For example, eating is seen as an individual act, but table manners are accepted as the products of a specific culture. Furthermore, identity, class membership, group-belonging, cultural rituals and traditional practices are, among others, generally considered as imposed upon individuals by culture. This gives the impression that culture primarily shapes and determines behavior. Cultural behavior in this sense is not subject to rational assessment and is formed through habits, customs, and traditions that essentially remain within the domain of senses, attitudes, and emotions other than choice and rationality. Contrary to this approach, I apply choice theories to cultural behavior in three chapters to discuss whether the choice theories have the potential to explain different forms of human behavior in general.

The application of the models shows that cultural behavior can be subjected to the criteria of rationality as opposed to previous approaches. However, the application also shows that RCT and PCT have arguable success in explaining the complexity and subtlety of cultural behavior. Their success is limited because, for example, they make unrealistic assumptions about human cognitive capacities, they disregard the content of preferences, and they dismiss the role of emotions in decision making, among other shortcomings.

in the second chapter of the dissertation, i introduce four criticisms-these are: (1) individuals are not atomic and unconnected entities; (2) individuals are not perfectly rational; (3) instrumental rationality cannot explain fully human behavior; and (4) institutions and structures cannot be reduced to individual choices. These criticisms have three goals.

The first goal is to reformulate the choice theories according to the general features of human behavior. choice theories tend to ignore the relation of individuals to each other in their environments, treating social groups as secondary and reducing public decisions to the choices of individuals. Social life is not just a matter of choice, but a natural tendency. individuals live and interact together, helping to fulfill each other's desires and goals that they cannot realize independently. Even basic needs are inevitably social. So, a theory of rationality must take account of 'relations' in the sense that individuals are more than atomic entities.

The second goal is to discuss one of the assumptions of RCT- the assumption that people are not only rational, but also that they are perfectly rational. If they follow the rules of rationality, as they should, they can make flawless calculations about the best means to achieve their specific ends. Psychological tests have provided evidence time and again that this assumption is no longer tenable and that the application of RCT to culture supports the same assumption. Considering individuals as less than perfectly rational gives a more realistic view of them.

The third goal is to emphasize a point made by Jon Elster in Sour grapes (1983). He gives the following example to criticize the kind of rationality that he calls 'thin': "If an agent has a compulsive desire to kill another person, and believes that the best way of killing that person is to stick a pin through a doll representing him, then he acts rationally if he sticks a pin through the doll" (3). …

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