Goal of rational choice

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


August 20, 2023

Rational choice

M Ali Siddiqi points out to a valuable assessment

Rational choice – Human evolution is a curious phenomenon and also continuous without a break. Human race is mentally and psychologically restless and its curiosity knows no bounds. It has traversed so far over million years of its existence that is miraculous in content yet it is unwilling to stop. The very nature of human existence is to keep on digging deep into the very genesis of its existence and a large part of such reflection is inward. The intense reflection inbuilt in human intellect searches for new paths and to consistently break new grounds. This quest has led human intellect to fine tune its thought process and look for innovative methods aimed at improving the quality of life. Rational choice theory is deeply influenced by the cutting edge of human intellect and its wide acceptance is a testament to its logical relevance.

The goal of rational choice theory is to provide a way of understanding human interaction and social outcomes. It devises certain models to prove their usefulness in this context as they concern important elements of human behaviour in a meaningful way. It is quite obvious that bringing about a useful model involves focusing attention on certain motivations to the exclusion of others. This is where rational choice theory enters into the discussion that sharply assists in understanding problems of social importance and their relevance. This contribution is possible because of—not in spite of—the narrow focus of rational choice theories. Moreover, as rational choice theories matured they gradually expanded the focus to include less restrictive assumptions. Despite its relevance rational choice theory needs a model environment but human intellect is capable of creating such an environment.

It is often mentioned that rational choice theory relies on simplifying assumptions about individuals in large part because it is a theory of social interaction. Assumptions of individual rationality lead to many important and unobvious conclusions about the behaviour of groups of individuals or societies. Rational choice, or rationality, has two meanings. First, in a technical sense, rationality implies that an individual’s preferences over choices possess two properties: completeness and transitivity. The first property holds that the individual’s preferences are well defined for any two possible alternatives in the set of available choices.

Despite its rather high-flying contours the concept of rational choice is commonly associated with self-interested behaviour that is generally shunned by altruistic human tendency. This association reflects a common set of assumptions about the structure of individuals’ preferences, such as that people care only about their own personal welfare and not the welfare of others. It is closely associated with the idea of human interdependence and with a subfield of economics known as game theory. In this context the crucial deductions of game theory is that one individual’s choices often depend on the behaviour of other individuals and that this is also natural course of things.

Although rational choice theory builds on individual decisions yet it is fundamentally a social theory of human behaviour dealing exclusively with social situations in a given setting. Rational choice theory is social in its approach to understanding individual decisions and it predominantly holds that people condition their behaviour on the anticipated behaviour of other people. It is social in that it allows people to understand how groups of individuals reach collective decisions and produce social outcomes. It emphasises the interdependence of individuals as the behaviour of one individual depends on how this person expects other people to behave. This fundamental insight has been applied by scholars to a wide range of questions in economics and political science.

In this regard it is pointed out that human interactions studied by rational choice theorists are known as principal– agent problems. This type of interaction is characterised by a principal attempting to induce an agent which often possesses divergent preferences from the principal, to perform some task. Principal–agent problems have wide applications in political science including delegation of authority by citizens to elected officials, by officials to bureaucrats and by the military to subordinates. Rational choice mechanism produced a widely accepted social dilemma concept underlining that individually rational decisions often have unintended social outcomes. Moreover, individual maximisation often leads to socially suboptimal outcomes that may be quite diverse. Rational choice has been instrumental in identifying and clarifying these social dilemmas as well as in proposing solutions to them.

As is the wont with social ideas the concept of rational choice also was widely debated and objected upon. Objections were raised to the effect that rational choice is unsuitably restrictive because it typically assumes that people behave in a narrowly self-interested way. This sounds quite plausible as self-interest is considered placed at the base of human interactions. However, in contrast, human motivations are often far more complex, reflecting a concern for other people. Rational choice theory is also objection upon on the grounds that it is not constrained. After an initial set of assumptions about the structure of preferences and the interaction between individuals, rational choice theories contain rigorous, highly constrained, internally and logically consistent analysis. However, altering the sequence of the interaction often appears innocuous but it can have profound implications for the results of a rational choice theory. Similarly, the structure of individuals’ preferences can dramatically influence the predictions of this theoretical approach.

It is also noted that rational choice assumptions cannot explain important elements of human behaviour. In this context it is pointed out that in an electoral exercise voter turnout faces difficulty in explaining because each voter has only a trivial influence over the outcome of an election. It is also noted that once any single voter decides not to turn out to vote then the probability that the outcome of the election will be altered is very small yet regardless of whether or not an individual’s vote can influence the election outcome, each voter pays some cost for voting. The combination of highly uncertain benefits with certain costs suggests that voter turnout is a rare event yet people clearly vote in elections clearly defying the context of rational choice concept.

It is quite obvious that supporters of rational choice principles emphasise that although it is common to assume the narrow self-interest of individuals yet this assumption is not necessary. Rational choice theory can also assume that part of an individual’s welfare depends on the welfare of other people. They mention that many people value a measure of equality in the distribution of wealth and this preference often induces people to give to charity or to support programmes that redistribute income. Donations to charity and other apparently selfless acts do not necessarily represent irrational behaviour and it implies that the inherent human nature acts in multifarious ways and the emphasis is not necessarily on self-absorption. There are countless examples of human behaviour that is influenced by altruistic motives and welfare orientation. Rational choice however is not able to amply justify constraints it is often accused of and apparently there are no adequate answers. Nevertheless, whichever way human intent takes a human being it falls ultimately under the influence of a rational justification for its actions as this is the only way that they could be described. The Weekender


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