Tag Archives: Rational Choice Theory

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.