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Theory of Rational Choice: do we make decisions logically?

Theory of Rational Choice: do we make decisions logically?

June 20, 2022

The Theory of Rational Choice (TER) is a proposal that emerges in the social sciences applied especially to the economy, but that has been transferred to the analysis of human behavior. The TER pays attention to how an individual carries out the action of 'choosing'. That is, it asks about the cognitive and social patterns by means of which an individual directs his actions.

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

  • Related article: "Are we rational or emotional beings?"

What is the Theory of Rational Choice (TER)?

The Theory of Rational Choice (TER) is a school of thought that is based on the proposal that Individual choices are made according to individual personal preferences .


Therefore, the TER is also a model for explaining the way in which we make decisions (especially in the economic and political context, but it also applies in others where it is important to know how we decide the actions and how this affects a large scale) . The "rational" generally refers to the choices we make they are consistent with our personal preferences , derived from them in a logical way.

  • You may be interested: "Herbert Simon's Theory of Limited Rationality"

What is a rational choice according to the TER?

One choice is the action of selecting one among several available alternatives and conducting our behavior according to this selection. Sometimes, choices are implied , 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 take consciously (rationally) in accordance with what we consider to be the most appropriate option for our interests .

The proposal of the TER, in broad strokes, is that human beings choose in a fundamentally rational way. That is, based on the ability to think and imagine the possible side effects of the alternatives we have before a decision and from there select the alternatives that are the most appropriate for our benefit at that time (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 than our own reason, when making decisions.

Where does it come from?

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


In the context of the social sciences, the Theory of Rational Choice 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 subsequently transferred to the analysis of the disciplines of psychology and sociology. In the latter, the TER asks about the implications of self-interest, own experience and intentionality, in human action and in research. That is to say, is interested in methodological individualism .

In a very broad sense it is a "Criticism of the excess of mathematical narcissism versus the demands of realism that social science must have". Thus, the Theory of Rational Choice has been an attempt to orient social disciplines towards rigorous practices and knowledge.

Do we make decisions "rationally"? Some criticisms of TER

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

Also, the polysemy of the word "rationality" makes it difficult to use it as a support for social theory, since it is difficult to homogenize and with this it is complicated that researchers can establish communication with each other, and then put into practice face knowledge. to society.

In the same sense, "rationality" can easily be confused with that of "intentionality", and TER also does not usually address the difference and the relations between implicit and explicit choices. For a few years this last it has been investigated in laboratory experiments . Some of these investigations analyze the different cognitive and environmental variables that can affect a supposedly rational decision.

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

Bibliographic references:

  • Encyclopedia Britannica. (2018). Rational Choice Theory. Retrieved June 1, 2018. Available at //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, J.E.R. (nineteen ninety five). Schedule Combinations and Choice: Experiment and Theory. Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis, 21: 163-274.

The psychology behind irrational decisions - Sara Garofalo (June 2022).


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