What is the Rational Choice Theory?

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  • Written By: Mike Howells
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 07 August 2018
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Rational choice theory is the idea that people tend to make choices in a way that maximizes their advantage while minimizing the cost. Using this theory, economists, political scientists, and other researchers can attempt to model and predict what people will do when presented with certain options. It is used increasingly to describe phenomena as varied as voting tendency, consumerism, and business decisions.

At its core, this theory postulates that, when making a decision, people first weigh the likely positive benefits against likely negative consequences, and then base their choice on what they think will ultimately benefit them the most. By taking into consideration various additional factors — such as the strength of an individual's preferences, relative indifference between certain options, their intelligence, and time available to reach a decision — it is possible to generate useful behavior models for a variety of situations.

Rational choice theory has been perhaps most famously applied to political campaigns and elections. It can be used to help explain why people vote for one candidate over another, and why a majority of people typically opt not to vote at all, due to perceptions of futility. Though it does not explain why some people may vote in favor of measures that do not benefit them directly, through an understanding of the choices rational decision-makers tend to make, it is also possible for researchers to take into account the decisions of deviant deciders.


Through empirical observation, a percentage of individuals within a whole can be defined as those who — for whatever reason — make choices inconsistent with what rational choice theory would prescribe. For instance, there are some people who choose to pay more for a product at a particular store, even with the knowledge that the same product is cheaper at another. Voting for the well-being of others at the expense of one's own profit is also, according to this theory, a deviant behavior.

Assumptions about deviance and rational choice can also be applied to criminology. Key concepts, such as the typical need for a suitable target, a motive, and the absence of law enforcement or other authority, are drawn from rational choice. Such ideas can even be extended to the animal kingdom. The reasons why a thief may choose to target an older woman over a younger man, can be the same as the decision-making process that may cause a lion to choose a slower, older wildebeest over a faster, stronger looking one.


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Post 4

It's a generalization of course but a generalization that helps us understand what humans go through to make certain decisions. If you don't know what rational thinking is, you may want to do a little more research because it's very easy to point people's errors in logic or rational thinking by avoiding fallacies and really cognitively thinking about what you are saying and why you are saying it.

Post 3

Who determines what is rational? It is usually the person who makes the decision, and this vision of "rationality" can vary greatly from person to person, resulting in vastly different results. Some people only want to take, others only want to give. A giving person will naturally choose unselfishly. It can also be very difficult to distinguish the two.

Post 2


I think that rational choice theory is meant to deal with general examples, if not all of them. Expecting randomness all the time is no better than having no theory at all. Knowing how to act in a standard situation is important, and this theory has its limitations, but is certainly useful.

Post 1

I prefer to use Black Swan theory when dealing with people, which basically says that we should be prepared for randomness having a maximum effect. "Black Swans" are powerful and controlling factors which come out of nowhere and are often inexplicable, such as dictators like Hitler. We just never know what is going to happen. Hitler often made irrational choices and caught everyone off guard.

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