rational choice theory, jess calarco edition

One of the things that my graduate students truly hate about my teaching is my insistence on learning classical Becker-era rational choice and its variants. For most of the profession, RCT is simply something to be avoided and wished away. But I teach it for a few reasons. First, most sociologists actually believe in some version of RCT when you get down to it. For example, I asked my graduate theory seminar, “do you believe school shootings would decrease if the state penalized gun possession?” All hands went up. Then I said, “well, you believe in some form of RCT.” People were not happy. I also teach RCT in depth because, frankly, a lot of other theory professors teach straw man versions of the theory and I need to undo some of that.*

But the *real* reason that I teach RCT is that it is a theoretically rich tradition of social thought. If you really understand it, you can use it to formulate interesting questions, even if you don’t buy the most rarefied versions. And like all well articulated theories, once you write down the premises, you can use specific data to test the limits of the theory.

For example, a few days ago, my colleague and office neighbor, Jess Calarco posted this fun/frustrating tweet. Question: Are small children rational? RCT provides a lot of interesting answers. The options:

  1. Children are not rational actors in the Becker sense. They don’t have time intransitive preferences. RCT doesn’t apply to them and is an incorrect description of small children.
  2.  Children are “irrational rational” actors in the Becker sense. They have goofy preferences but they are still subject to time and budget constraints and this induces RCT behavior.
  3. Children are rational actors in the Becker sense but they have imperfect information. For example, maybe the child really wanted a red cup but once they saw what it was like, they found out it sucked.
  4. Children are rational actors but they have hyperbolic preferences. In other words, they want immediate satisfaction and utility drops exponentially over time.
  5. Children are “muddle through” rational actors, which means that they don’t have clearly defined utility function. “I don’t know what I want but I know it when I see it.” He thought he wanted the red cup but once he found a real one, he knew that it was all hype.
  6. Children are rational actors but they have low skills. Maybe he didn’t want that red cup but couldn’t properly express himself. So he just insisted on the red cup.
  7. Children combine elements of the RCT model and the biological model of behavior. When adrenaline is low, they are closer to RCT. But if their emotions get high, it inhibits RCT and they have intransitive preferences.

The truth? I’d probably gravitate toward #6 and #7. But there is a bigger point. RCT is a very useful way to investigate the social world – even a world filled toddler melt-downs.

*For example, some students are taught that RCT predicts that people choose to be poor or victims of crime. They are also taught that RCT is about financial incentives, a mistake that I even found repeated Bourdieu’s Intro to Reflexive Sociology. I spend a lot of class time every year reversing this.



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Written by fabiorojas

January 14, 2020 at 12:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

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