‘Rational choice’ history — a case of models not fitting the facts

24 Mar, 2018 at 17:01 | Posted in Economics | 6 Comments

Rational choice history is in a worse situation than that of either mechanistic biology in the seventeenth century or of sociobiology today. The analogy would be appropriate if it were mainly a question of refining the theories and of gathering more evidence. One could refine theory by incorporating bounded rationality and quasi-rational choice, so as to match more closely the way in which actual decisions are made. One could gather more evidence by paying careful attention to sources that illuminate the beliefs and goals of the actors …

an narrThe need for modesty appears in two ways. First, as I have been at some pain to emphasize, one should avoid the postulate of hyperrationality. Collective action, iterated games, and credibility are simple ideas that can be and have been refined to yield rococo (or baroque?) constructions that no longer bear any relation to observable behavior. To be useful, they have to be constrained by what we know about the limitations of the human mind. Second, because formal analysis has nothing to say about the motivation of the agents, it cannot by itself yield robust predictions. Although it is extremely useful to know that the structure of material interests in a given case is that of a one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma, that fact does not by itself imply anything about what the agents will do. If they have nonmaterial or even nonrational motivations, they might behave very differently from the noncooperative behavior we would expect if they were exclusively swayed by material interests. If they are in fact observed to cooperate, then we will have to search for nonmaterial or nonrational motivations. Rational choice theory tells us what to look for, not what we will find.

 Jon Elster


  1. Terrible book. Just made up stuff to fit the theory

  2. Rational Choice, one the most stupid inventions in the history of social sciences. I am glad Jon Elster give a little lecture on this idiocity!

  3. Donald P. Green and Ian Shapiro´s book “Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory”, is also a good debunking of this horrible spectacle, named Rational Choice!!

    • Thanks for reminding me of that old classic, Jan!
      Haven’t read it for a long time now, but will definitely take a look at it again.

      • No Lars, it is some years ago i readthat book to.But i remember it at least was a rearly read Lars. Å så så verkar det ju som om att våren har anlänt te Götet idag!!! Värme och fint väder i hela stan,faktiskt!!Idag åtminstone! Vet ej i Malmö? Må gott, vännen Jan

  4. A more more modern critisism of Publi Choice is also availabe on John Mc Cumber here:https://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/ethics-101/a-critique-of-rational-choice-theory/

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