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In the most general sense, rational choice theory describes human behavior by specifying laws of human decision making. Its two implicit assumptions are that: i) decisions determine behavior and ii) decisions follow a set of general laws. Just as Newton's Laws describe the motion of particles, rational choice theory describes the behavior of individuals. And, just as particles minimize potential energy, humans maximize their expected utility.
Rational choice theory is a way of looking at deliberations between a number of potential courses of action, in which "rationality" of one form or another is used either to decide which course of action would be the best to take, or to predict which course of action actually will be taken. Such a perspective finds itself in models for both human behavior and behavior of non-human but nonetheless potentially rational entities, such as corporations or nation-states.
Obviously, what is taken as "rational" is of chief importance here. This varies with context:
- The technical meaning in economics is about preferences: preferences are defined to be rational if they are complete and transitive. That is, that the decision-maker is able to compare all of the alternatives, and that these comparisons are consistent. See the preferences page for further explanation.
- If uncertainty is involved, then the independence axiom is often assumed in addition to rational preferences.
- If decision-making over time is involved, time consistency is generally assumed as well.
- Rationality can also mean that the decision-maker always chooses the most preferred option, as in the Utility Maximization Problem.
- An individual has precise information about exactly what will occur under any choice made. (Alternatively, an individual has a reliable probability distribution describing what will happen under any choice made.)
- An individual has time and ability to weigh every choice against every other choice.
- An individual is fully aware of all possible choices.
Assumptions such as these have sparked criticism from a number of camps. Some people have tried to create models of bounded rationality, which try to be more psychologically plausible without completely abandoning the idea that some kind of reason underlies decision-making processes. For a long time, a popular strain of critique was a lack of empirical basis, but experimental economics and experimental game theory have largely changed that critique (although they have added other critiques, mainly by demonstrating some human behavior that consistently deviates from rational choice theory). Early critiques of the rational choice approach in political science for example, argued that the rational choice theorists could not explain why people voted, much less make more sophisticated arguments about political behavior.
Rodney Stark has been a mayor proponent of the Rational Choice Theory within the sociology of religion. Using the Rational Choice Theory he has provided strong theoretical frameworks for analytically understanding the development and eventual success of some new religious movements. Based on his findings, he has presented a theory on the development of early Christianity, based on Networks of Faith, rather than miraculous mass conversions. The Networks of Faith Theory in turn made possible the theoretical prediction of LDS growth in the period c.1970-2005; a feat Stark was originally scorned, but ultimately applauded for.
Why rational choice theory? Edit
- They see people as "rational" beings, and thus believe that a model in which they are represented as such should be reasonably accurate. This has been especially significant and relevant in the sociology of religion, where the Enlightenment ideas of religion and religiosity has re-constructed religious people as ultimatelly irrational agents. This has in its own turn made possible correspondence with expanding cognitivist approaches to the study of religion.
- Assumptions of rationality have useful formal properties.
- Rational choice is an individualistic methodology which looks on social situations as being results of individual actions, which, for many people, allows for an easier understanding.
- Framing (economics)
- Homo economicus
- Neoclassical economics
- Organizational theory
- Rational expectations
- James Coleman
- Rational ignorance
- Rational pricing
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