Rational Choice Theories in Social Sciences


Rational choice theories emerged in economics models and were designed to examine human action and behavior in social science. RCT is a set of theories that emphasize the unforced nature of human action and actors’ capability to decide and act according to rational calculations of benefit and cost. Human actors are perceived as rational and self-interested; therefore, they are expected to know the available alternatives and make the best decision according to the future consequences of the choice.

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A rational choice, in general, aims at providing the best means to achieve set goals. The overall conclusion on a positive or negative value of the theory is based upon the analysis of studies by Aldrich, Burns and Roszkowska, Hirshi, and Iannaccone. The RCT issue is examined in terms of the economic, political, criminal, and religious aspects, as well as the everyday application of RCT.

Defining the Theory

With their universal interpretation, rational choice theories play a fundamental role in explaining the sophistication of social science ranging from the historical to socio-cultural context. Rational choice theory (RCT) includes several theories that form the groundwork for defining and designing social and economic behavior. Hence, the core premise of RCT implies the cumulative social behavior as a result of the conduct of individual actors, where each of them makes particular decisions and pursues personal values and self-interest. Such a pursuit is generally implemented within the context of other actors who rationally aim for their benefit and personal values.

Individual actors are expected to be informed about their actions and to choose the best options or methods to accomplish them. Therefore, RCT highlights “the volitional nature of human action,” as well as the actors’ capacity to decide and act according to rational calculations of benefit and cost (Burns & Roszkowska, 2016, p. 197). Burns and Roszkowska (2016) classify the essential components of the RCT, including the identification of alternative actions or sequences of actions and determination of the consequences resulting from each of the alternatives and feasible outcomes. Moreover, a consistent preference ordering and deciding by choosing the alternative that enhances a utility or value function is involved as well.

The Research on the Theory

The RCT is examined in a broad spectrum that covers different socio-cultural areas, such as politics, economics, religion, and even criminalistics, by dealing with specific issues and limitations. Thus, rational choice theories prove the capacity to relate to other approaches and interact with them. RCT takes a predominant place in political and social science, specifically in the field of American politics, where it is applied as the theory of an individual choice and its consequences for political outcomes. Following the ideas of Aldrich (2018), RCT significantly contributed to political science in the late 1970s, by adding the rigorous treatment of institutions, known as “new institutionalism” (p. 209).

The core principle is that political outcomes result from actors who aim at realizing their preferences and are products of the institutional context with the determined behavior. Aldrich (2018) states that political choices are distinct from other types of decisions since the political actors have the power to change the rules, decide, and choose outcomes within these rules. The political choices should be as well supported by history examination and built upon the basis of the individual decision-making model.

Furthermore, apart from the political area, people also make choices in religious terms and modify them significantly over time; hence, the RCT might be applied here as well. Iannaccone (2016) provides three assumptions of the meaningful rational choice model of religion. These include that individuals act rationally to maximize their net benefits with their stable ultimate preferences. In addition, social outcomes serve as the balance resulting from the sum and interaction of individual actions.

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According to Iannaccone (2016), the aggregate actions of religious consumers and producers create a “religious market” that aims at sustainable equilibrium (p. 23). Religious producers are considered as the determining factor and the optimizers of institutional success. Hence, the actions of churches and ministry are designed as rational responses to restrictions and capacity of the religious market.

The rational choice theories approach can also be traced in criminal cases since offenders aim at benefiting themselves by their criminal behavior. Such behavior as well involves making choices and decisions that showcase a measure of rationality; however, it is limited by time and the ability to access relevant information. Criminal behavior might be perceived as a broadly rational activity, thus, the RCT approach applies to all criminal decision-making.

However, Hirshi (2014) provides research on the persistent failure of the rational choice perspective to be a serious theory about human behavior in terms of the history of sociological thinking about crime. The researcher suggests a division into the theory of offenders and the theory of crime with social control perspectives and rational choice accordingly. The rational choice might put an excessive emphasis on the “intellectual sophistication” of the offender; hence, the social control theory (SCT) might be more useful since it provides a realistic and negative image of the offender (Hirshi, 2014, p. 106). Moreover, SCT partly corrects the rational choice theory’s lack of consideration of the background factors, as they are the roots of any crime.

The Application of RCT in Everyday Situations

Rational choice theories can be analyzed in the rational behavior of the actors in everyday life situations. As the major economic principle, RCT proves that individuals make prudent and reasonable decisions. For instance, a rational choice of any product purchasing would imply a well-thought decision until the customers know exactly what product they need and which one they prefer the most. Another example of the logical undertone for the rational choice would be the health dish choice, whether in the supermarket or the restaurant. In such a case, the customer has to examine properly all the ingredients of the dish and its influence on health to logically adapt it to the best choice.

Referring back to the political sphere, rational choice theories can be applied in terms of the mass political behavior that involves many actors in voting, interest groups, or political participation in general. When voting, the individual is facing a choice between two candidates, which limits the conditions of the decision-making. Aldrich (2018) states that a rational postulate requires the elector to vote in favor of the preferred candidate. Hence, such situations need citizens to form their preferences and vote accordingly. Moreover, it is possible to integrate rational choice and social cognitive theories to comprehend electoral behavior better.


By analyzing the rational choice theories within a broad context of economics, religion, politics, criminalistics, and everyday life situations, one may summarize whether RCT has a positive or negative value. Apart from a significant contribution to social science, RCT has an evident lack of norms and ethical concerns about the human actor. This can be explained by a highly self-centered basis of every rational choice the individual makes considering the consequences primarily for oneself. Therefore, the RCT concept does not include any ethical values or moral sentiments, which allows evaluating these theories as negative.

To conclude, RCT is unable to consider any social and moral framework of preference arrangement, action alternatives, as well as the policies of decisions and human actions. In addition, these theories are incapable of conceptualizing reasons the human actors’ shape and modify their social conditions as an integral part of the historical development of social institutions and society as well. It has a negative value because of the simplified behavioral model that requires radically artificial presumptions for its operation. The rational choice theories’ perception of human action enables very little behavioral freedom to humans and social agents, which mainly implies deciding their goals and values.

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Aldrich, J. (2018). Rational choice theory and the study of American politics. In L. Dodd & C. Jillson (Eds.), The dynamics of American politics (pp. 208–233). New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.

Burns, T., & Roszkowska, E. (2016). Rational choice theory: Toward a psychological, social, and material contextualization of human choice behavior. Theoretical Economics Letters, 6, 195–207.

Hirshi, T. (2014). On the compatibility of rational choice and social control theories of crime. In D. Cornish & R. Clarke (Eds.), The reasoning criminal: Rational choice perspectives on offending (pp. 105–117). New Brunswick, New Jersey, NY: Transaction Publishers.

Iannaccone, L. R. (2016). Rational choice. The framework for the scientific study of religion. In L. Young (Ed.), rational choice theory and religion (pp. 20–29). New York, NY: Routledge.

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