Tag Archives: rational choice

The Place of Rational Choice

After criticizing Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s antiscientific and dangerous attack on Rational Choice Theory, I then turned around and attacked Rational Choice Theory itself for not being a scientific theory (though it can be a useful tool).

The lesson, I guess, is that simply having the right enemies does not make you right yourself.

My critiqued of both Jackson and Rational Choice attracted the attention of Phil Arena, both regarding antiscience and, more interestingly, regarding Rational Choice. Phil was kind enough to provide with me two articles, “Does Preference Cycling Invalidate “Rational Choice Theory”?,” and “Rat Choice Apologetics II” in which he had previously attempted to defend Rational Choice Theory from similar attacks.

Phil’s posts emphasize that Rational Choice is not a scientific theory.

The first post, on preference cycling, is an extended “just-so” defense of Rational Choice theorizing against laboratory falsification. Phil writes:

My big point here is that those who seek to justify a wholesale rejection of “rational choice theory” by observing that some laboratory experiments have found that some individuals exhibit behavior that appears to reflect cyclical preferences are overplaying their hand.

But Phil’s bigger points seems to be that any laboratory finding does not falsify Rational Choice, because some collection of mathematical formulas can be modified post-hoc to account for the behavior observed. This speeks to the cleverness of the Rational Choice theorists — like Freudians or Jungians, any observation of evidence of their model.

Rational Choice is like Interviewing, because just as no experimental result can falsify Rational Choice, no experimental result can falsify the feelings of an interview subject. Few who are planning a complex intervention would do so without interviews of one sort or another, and it may be that Rational Choice is likewise useful. But just as the interview is a tool, not a scientific theory, Rational Choice is a tool, not a scientific theory.

In the follow-up Post, Phil goes farther to protect not just Rational Choice Theory, but any implementation of a rational choice theory, from falsification:

Amongst formal theorists, there is significant disagreement about how to evaluate models in general. On one end of the spectrum, you have the strict interpretation of EITM, as espoused here and seems to be Morton’s preferred view here, though she does discuss other views. This view holds that formal models are important for ensuring logical consistency of theoretical arguments, but the value of these arguments is ultimately judged empirically. On the other, you have Primo and Clarke, who argue that there are many different roles we could ask our models to serve, some of which do not require any kind of empirical assessment. My own views, as I’ve indicated before, are closer to those of Primo and Clarke.

This is not scientifically serious. But Rational Choice Theory is not a scientific theory, so of course it doesn’t have to be. The purpose of science is to improve, predict, or control behavior (at whatever unit of analysis we are working), but the purpose of tools such as interviews, case study, and rational choice is to inspire scientists to come up with scientific theories that can make control, predict, and improve behavior.

Phil’s a clear writer, so his point is written clearly. And he’s write that science has certain requirements — such as predictive validity — that are as hard to get away from as Rational Choice Theory’s unfalsifiable assumptions:

When we evaluate arguments empirically, we make a huge, non-falsifiable assumption that the future will be like the past. Otherwise, it would be meaningless to claim to be testing the claim that X causes Y by observing historical patterns of association between X and Y. On a certain level, we all understand this. That is why folks worry about omitted variable bias with observational studies and external validity with experiments. But I’m not sure how many people really appreciate the depth of the problem.

But of course the difference is that the scientific requirement for predictive validity enables it to fulfill its mission of predicting, improving, and controlling behavior (at whatever unit of analysis we are functioning). Rational Choice Theory rejects the scientific need to predict, improve, or control behavior, because it is a “formal model” which are “logical consistency” and thus do not need “empirical assessment.” That is, Rational Choice is a form of “qualitative” (or better, investigatory) analysis, where mathematical equation balancing takes the place of interviews or subjective impressions.

Rational Choice has a place in science, like any investigatory or qualitative method (introspection, interviews, case studies, etc): to generate hypotheses. Rational Choice should be a part of science to the extent its scientifically useful. But like interviews, case studies, and the such, we can’t generalize from rational choice theorizing, but of course we can generalize from the empirical findings such theorizing might lead us to.

Against Rational Choice

I recently wrote two posts, “Four Types of Anti-Science” and “Academia, Science, and Anti-Science,” which took Patrick Thaddeus Jackson to task for his post, “The Society of Individuals.” I even criticized Phil Arena for not being sufficiently critical of Jackon’s writing in his post, “Should We Keep Hidden the Way People Behave When their Actions are Hidden?

But here’s the thing: I’m not a fan of “Rational Choice.” It’s a useful tool, but Rational Choice Theory is not a scientific theory.

For emphasis: Rational Choice Theory itself is not a scientific theory — it’s a tautology that’s used for creating theories, but it’s based on a basically absurd premise that is as protected from refutation as the worst nonsense from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

The core foundation of Rational Choice Theory is that individuals have a discoverable complete transitive preference schedule. This is a ridiculous assumption. It’s also unfalsifiable in terms of the theory that generated it.

  • Discoverable means it is possible for researchers to uncover this. A list of desired possibilities, which occurs entirely in the mind and doesn’t consistently direct action, is irrelevant to Rational Choice Theory.
  • Complete means it contains all possible actions and choices. Some of these may be unknown at the time that a decision is made, but once it is known, it does not change the order of preferences.
  • Transitive means the order is consistent, that there are no loops or self-referential cycles. For instance, if you would rather have money than a job, and would rather be comfortable than have money, therefore you would rather be comfortable than have a job.
  • Preference Schedule means that this is the list that controls actions. It’s important to note that Rational Choice Theory is not a psychological theory. There is no need, whatsoever, for Rational Choice to explain the “reasons” for choices, or the subjective experience of the chooser.

It is the transitive requirement which prevents Rational Choice Theory from being a scientific theory. For instance, in the example above, even if we could discover that the subject who prefers a job to comfort, then the Rational Choice Theorist would say there must really be some other elements we hadn’t considered — say a desire to be useful and a desire not to be worthless, which are the real preferences.

Rational Choice Theory is the No True Scotsman fallacy writ large.

All that said, Rational Choice is a method for generating theories. Some are falsified. Others are not and are found to be useful. Like Evolutionary Psychology with its mythical “Era of Evolutionary Adaptation,” Rational Choice’s discoverable complete transitive preference schedule is a tool that enables scientists to create scientific theories about the world, rather than a scientific theory in itself.

Dr. Jackson’s attack on Rational Choice Theory was anti-science, because it privileged his idiosyncratic idealistic prejudices against the scientific method.

He would have been far more useful if he had merely stated it was not a scientific theory at all.

The (Un)Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

My post yesterday got some interesting reaction, including a link to this video called “The surprising truth about what motivates us.” The video is by Dan Pink, a journalist (but not scientist) who seems to be trying the best he can to express scientific theories about motivation.

I don’t want to pick on Pink too much, so I’ll use an early howler in the video to discuss motivation a bit

We are not as endlessly manipulable and as predictable as you would think. There’s a whole set of unbelieably interesting studies — I want to give you two — that call into question this idea that if you reward something you get more of the behavior you want and if you punish something you get less of it.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and most of it I won’t bother to try. I don’t know who Pink came across who told him people are “endlessly manipulable,” but it was more likely to be a crazy person on the street than a scientist or economist. A “reward” is often defined as a stimulus that leads to an increase in the targeted behavior, so if the “reward” does not lead to more of a behavior, it’s not a reward.

But I’ll forgive Pink for these, as the first statement just leads up to the video, and the second may be the result of terminological confusion. But the idea that a “reward” does not always leads to an increase in a behavior is painfully well known. Even the great behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, would have said that idea is stupid.

In behaviorism, animals have “drives” caused by their species-nature which they attempt to satiate through the accusition of appropriate stimuli. For instance, most species have some drive for hydration. An ant, a dog, and a human will all attempt to inbibe water in some method. But when an animal is no longer thirsty, the “reward” of water is satiated, and the animal will continue on with other drives.

Likewise, “rational choice” economics teaches that humans are driven in the persuit of well-being, and that money, leisure, social status, and other stimuli serve to satiate that drive, based on an individual’s pre-existing “preference schedule.”

But I don’t want to spend time demonstrating that Pink is completely wrong from every seriously held perspective. It’s more interesting to try to find common ground with him, and illustrate how many is important even though it is not the primary motivation for most people.

Most people are motivated to do what they are good at. Specifically, most people have a variety of goals they would like to achieve. To be powerful, popular, and respected might be three of these goals, though there are many more. Likewise, an individual has some understanding of what is required to actually achieve those goals at the given instant. Motivation can be reliable predictable in a wide variety of domains by an indiviuals’ belief, really and right now, that he can actually achieve the specific set of goals required to meet a desired objective. (This concept is referred to as self-efficacy.)

Consider the case of a man who has two objectives: he wishes to stay healthy, and he wishes to be comfortable. But this man has diabetes, and whlie he loves to eat bread, he knows the effect of bread on his insulin levels is dangerous. I don’t believe that individuals are purely driven by the calculated net present value of eating bread v. not eating bread. Rather, without the self-efficacy to avoid unhealthy foods, the individuals’ more base desire to satiate himself on bread will win.

So how would we increase self-efficacy in this case? Clinically, we would conduct a task analysis to understand what is required to really & right now maintain healike

Goal: Stay Healthy
Required Step: Recognize situations in which will-power will be limitd
Required Step: Understand socially acceptable methods of extracting oneself from temptation
Required Step: Execute pro-active steps to satiation hunger drive using less unhealthy substities


An understanding of self-efficacy allows us to understand how economic incentives work on individuals who are not “motivated by money.”

Consider a kind-hearted individuals who has several goals, such as to look-after his family, to labor in a field which is helpful to others, and to make a difference to people he has never met. Even if subject is completely non-materialistic, all of these goals are made easier through higher income. Of course, other things also make these goals easier, and in creating a reward schedule one has to be careful not to impose costs higher than the benefits of an increase in income. No one is stupid enough to believe that an increase in income always by itself leads to an increase in targetted behavior. But it is equally wrong to say that ‘good’ people are not motivated by income, or that the fact that other things can also improve self-efficacy means that financial compensation is not a part of a reasonable reward schedule.

In America, to wrap this up, we do not have a professional teaching cohort. Way too many teachers either washed out of either majors for that to be the case. Rather, we have the remnants of a professional cohort intermixed with the labor force you get when you underpay and mistreat a once-admired (if still somewhat respected) profession.

If we are serious about having students educatd by teaching professionals, we need to treat them like professionals, which includes paying them like professionals.

If we are not serious about that, we need to make idiot-proof scripts that an even-teacher teaching cohort can read during classtime.