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Essay on Rational Choice Theory


Economists developed the rational choice theory, which includes applying microeconomic concepts to studying and explaining political behavior. The theory is also known as public-choice, formal, or social choice. This particular theory is interested in developing public policies that lead to better public interests. Its other goal includes enhancing the public policy formulation process. The theory helps in understanding and modeling individual, social and economic behavior. This study will look at the concepts the features of the rationalist theory, its assumptions, and its strengths and weaknesses. The research question is; what are the ideas, features, stability, and shortcomings of the rational choice theory. It is also essential to look at the origin of sound choice theory in political science. Therefore, the paper will look into the concepts of the theory, the features, including the assumptions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the rational choice theory. It is also important to look at the origin of the theory

The theory grew as part of a behavioral revolution in the United States that aimed to determine how people behaved. The model has become an appeal to the field of political science, especially in America. A guy named Anthony Downs became the first person to apply the theory to party competition and electoral behavior. There are other aspects besides Down’s works, and they include public choice, collective action, and rent-seeking. The theory has different approaches to social action study, social systems, structures, and human agency. The idea starts from a person’s point of view, contradicting collective action where people interact together through groups or social situations. Through the individualism aspect, the theory explains how norms, cooperation, and sharing emerge in the part of decision making. The approach is also sociologically minimalist, starting with a few simple assumptions about individual and people relationships. It then develops interaction and social action models that study and describe the complexities of systems, larger groups, and society. The theory differs from the structural approaches and techniques of Durkheim or people who develop social values and norms, an essential characteristic of their perspective. Importantly, this particular theory embraces an individual’s simple and spare model that can be used across space and time and hence becomes a universal model.


Rationality in rational choice theory means that a person acts against benefits to arrive at a point of maximizing a person’s advantage. The logical choice theory looks at three concepts; the invisible hand, rational actors, and self-interest. Individuals will use their self-interests to make decisions that will enable them to have a more significant benefit. Individuals weigh their options and pick one that will bring more meaningful results (Sato 2019). Rational actors, on the other hand, are people in the government or an economy who make rational choices based on their information and calculations. Rational actors minimize losses by maximizing their advantages. The invisible hand is a metaphor representing the unseen factors that influence a decision that benefits the entire society or most people. The rational actors and those driven by self-interests will finally make decisions that probably result in a positive outcome.

Features of Rational Choice of Theory

There are features of rational choice theory. The primary part of this particular theory is the analytical model. Rationality is considered to be a significant point in policy making. This specific theory originates from economists. As earlier stated, the approach involves using microeconomic concepts to analyze and explain political behavior in decision-making (Downs 2018). The rational policy achieves maximum social gain; society gains benefits at a higher cost. Guidelines that define leading social choice include; that no policy should be implemented if the benefits are less than the costs and that policymakers should utilize the alternative of producing a more significant advantage if there are many alternatives. Individuals term a policy rational when it achieves more value than any other policy alternative.

Rationality is equated to efficiency. The concept of rationalism involves the calculation of all economic, political, and social values achieved by a public policy. The achievement in this context is not in a narrow perspective; it is measured in cents, dollars, or bits, and the values stated are sacrificed for monetary value (“The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics” 2018). The rationality principle states choosing the best option among vast alternatives on the grounds of rationality. However, it is hard for policymakers to be rational. There are conditions for one to be reasonable. It includes; identifying and determining goals, ranking goals in order of essentiality, identifying the potential policy alternatives suitable for achieving the mentioned goals, and lastly, the cost-benefit policy analysis.

Certain conditions direct policymakers in selecting a suitable rational policy. The policymakers should be in a position to know what values are preferred in society and their significance. They should know all the alternatives available. After learning all the possible options, they should determine the consequences of each choice (Dror 2017). The policymakers should calculate the achieved to the sacrificed values ratio for all the possible alternatives. Lastly, after knowing the consequences and performing calculations, they should pick the most appropriate option that they will utilize. To accomplish all these conditions or requirements, the policymakers should have enriching information on the alternative policies and the ability and accurateness to get correct ratio values. A practical decision-making art should be involved in rational policymaking to attain rationality.

The other feature of rational choice theory is the assumptions made by those who came up with the idea. The premises include Individualism, optimality, structures, self-regarding interest, and rationality. Individualism tells us that it is individuals who make and take decisions. They are actors, especially in society and any location, and they behave as rational people, self-interested, self-calculating, and self-maximizing. Personal social actions determine the final social impacts. According to the assumption of optimality, people choose efforts optimally, considering their preferences for the values, opportunities, and weaknesses that the particular person faces. It is taking an action that the individual best prefers over the majority of alternative activities. People do all the best in any circumstances presented to them.

The other assumption is structured. The norms and structures that determine an action’s direction are unique aspects of the rational choice theory. In several circumstances, choices differ from the strongly structured events. The structured case might have one choice, while the other possibility may have several options. However, the structures may tend to destroy the nature of the rational choice theory, but people will find ways to exercise an action optimally. By doing this, the approach might not show consensus, harmony, and equality in the course of action. At times, the structure may not be optimal from an individual’s viewpoint with few resources. On the other hand, the theory will explain the emergence of this particular situation and how it is maintained via rational choices.

The other assumption is self-regarding interest. As earlier stated, a person acts according to their self-interests or welfare. However, group sentiments exist, including charity, cooperation, and unselfishness. All these elements may seem to contradict the assumption of optimality. The details can be incorporated into the theory by observing the sentiments to pursue some aspect of self-interest. Charity auctions, at times, are aimed at making a person feel good or have the purpose of raising an individual’s self-esteem (“How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory” 2018). Rationality is another assumption of this particular theory. It is the most common assumption and explains that people do actions in ways that they get more benefit. They make decisions they see as the best and would realise a more remarkable result.

The other feature talks about significant points in the theory. The topics include; that a person is a rational actor, rationality is mostly about calculation, based o the analytical calculations, individuals choose both deviant and conforming behavior. The other central point is that the estimate done by these people includes the cost-benefit analysis. An individual’s choice is directed to a person’s pleasure when other conditions remain equal. A government must maintain order and preserve the common good via a set system of laws. The certainty, swiftness, and severity of punishment tell the law’s ability to control someone’s behavior. Furthermore, someone’s choice is influenced via perception and understanding of the potential pain or consequence after judgment violating the social contract.

Strengths of Rational Choice Theory

The rational choice theory has been mainly in the political science field. It has been used so much to approach political issues. The idea has been explained as a unified structure for understanding human behavior (McN. and Becker 2018). It is also the most general theory of social action and rigourous theory of the century. There are other advantages of social science, which include; parsimony, generality, and predictive.

Generality means that a set of principles related to a specific action can be compatible with a group of assumptions of an environment where the rational actor is present. Parsimony is a situation whereby the combination of common knowledge and information of rationality assumption, assumption of self-regard utility, and isomorphic function with the rational optimization model allows the theory to treat the choices made by people as a function of their structural position. The only variables for determining action are preferences and beliefs. The predictive nature is whereby the theory’s assumptions have been utilized to produce several decisive approaches. The predictions of these particular theories about the measurable real-world situation rule out the outcomes than those actions or results that are primarily accepted to be unlikely. The decisive nature of the approach depends entirely on the structure and the assumptions of one activity.

Weaknesses of the Rational Choice Theory

Everything has its ups and downs so does the rational choice theory. Firstly there has been a failure to agree on which basic assumptions should be used. Secondly, there are issues associated with uncertainty and inadequate information. Lack of enough information leads to people making irrational decisions and not getting the benefit they want. Due to uncertainty and insufficient data, individuals tend to depend on other ways to make decisions. Thirdly, the aspects of interaction and social action are very complex, and it becomes hard for the rational choice theory to give guidelines on how to deal with the issues. However, other approaches can better explain the interaction and social action issue.

Theorists argue the individual social action model can be used to explain macro-level structures and institutions. However, there are issues with individuals’ aggregation of society-level phenomena. The habits and norms of a person can be used to give guidance to much action. After some time, the practices and standards are deeply rooted within people. The people will not question them but utilize them in meaningful social action. The other primary problem of this particular theory is that it creates an argument that what people always do is rational self-sacrifice and philanthropy. Thus, it means that the irrational action becomes integrated into the model. Due to this, it will be hard to come up with standards to know what is rational and what is unreasonable.


In conclusion, the theory assumes that all things are not equal. For this particular reason, it is evident that people make choices and decisions regardless of the circumstances—a person’s values, beliefs, and philosophy influence how someone makes choices and decisions. The concepts related to the relational choice theory are self-interest, the invisible hand, and the rational actors. All of these concepts influence the way people make choices and decisions. There are features of the sound choice theory. The first feature of the idea is its originality and explains the use of the microeconomic approach to explaining political behavior in decision-making. The other feature is the conditions required for policymakers to make a rational policy. These include the respective individuals knowing the values and preferences and available alternatives. There are other conditions explained. In addition, there are central points of the rational choice theory, including individuals being rational actors. Moreover, the strengths given are the advantages of the sound choice theory and include generality predictive and parsimony issues. The approach, besides having powers, has weaknesses. The weaknesses presented are majorly the criticism from others who have carefully studied all the aspects of the theory. The theory is majorly about Individualism and making rational decisions. It thus helps in the making of policies in any governance system.


Sato, Yoshimichi. 2019. “Rational Choice Theory.” Sociopedia.

Downs, Anthony. 2018. “An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy.” Journal of Political Economy 65 (2): 135–50.

Dror, Yehezkel. Public Policymaking: Reexamined. Routledge, 2017.

McN., G., and Gary S. Becker. 2018. “The Economic Approach to Human Behavior.” Population and Development Review 4 (3): 525.

“How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory.” 2018. Choice Reviews Online 48 (09): 48–534548–5345.

“The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics.” 2018. Choice Reviews Online 46 (02): 46-066646-0666.


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