Rational choice theory (RCT) is used in a number of fields to investigate and explain the rational process by which decisions are made that produce maximum benefit to the individual, group, or society. RCT has been adopted by researchers and professionals to understand decision making in such fields as marketing, economics, organizational psychology, criminology, psychology, psychiatry, and social work.
Rational choice theory has its roots in classical political theory of the eighteenth century. According to McCarthy and Choudhary (2018) “the conceptual foundations” of what they call the rational choice approach (RCA) “originate[s] in Cesare Beccaria’s1764 essay On Crimes and Punishments and Jeremy Bentham’s 1789 work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
Rational choice theory is closely related to exchange theory which was developed by sociologist George Homans in the early 1960s. Exchange theory says that people make decisions and interact in society to maximize their own benefits and minimize their own costs. Using the lens of exchange theory, decisions by individuals, groups, organizations, and even countries are transactional and aim to maximize profit and minimize costs.
RCT in the Behavioral Sciences and Clinical Work
In the behavioral sciences and in clinical work, RCT can be used to understand individuals and clients’ decision-making processes and motivations. Many people believe RCT is used to argue that individuals make decisions based on selfish or self-serving interests, but this is not always not the case. As explained by Elster (2001), rational decisions making can involve quite altruistic motivations. Individual choices often are made with the benefit of others in mind. Of course, altruism can circle back to the individual in the form of positive rewards, and this may be part of a conscious plan in making a decision or choice, but highly altruistic motivations are quite rational for some people.
Rational thoughts can be highly irrational as well. In the case of irrational decision making, therapists need to try to understand what motivates a client to make the decisions that they make. Someone who holds a view of the world as dangerous and unforgiving, for example, may make choices that help them avoid pain and punishment; this kind of decision making is quite rational for them. Understanding differences in how clients view what is rational can help a therapist choose an approach that either seeks to adjust their thinking about what actions are actually helping or harming them.
According to Özdemir, Tanhan, and Özdemir (2018) therapies using rational choice theory “exert their effect either by disrupting patients’ ability to preserve unawareness, increasing the cost of the symptom, decreasing the patient’s emotional distress, or eliminating the stressor.” Disorders that can be treated using a rational choice frame include obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction, or neurotic and repressive behaviors.
For example, Özdemir, et al. (2018) have developed a conceptualization of the Rational-Choice Theory of Neurosis. They argue that repressive and/or neurotic behaviors are actually rational in that they can distract an individual from highly stressful or upsetting life events. According to the authors, disorders that may constitute a type of coping mechanism and rational response to extreme stress include panic disorder, agoraphobia, anorexia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But they point out that while symptoms serve as a distraction from distressing thoughts the individual may not be aware of why their behavior has changed.
Cognitive behavioral seeks to disrupt and change the way people think about various issues, challenges, or events in their life. Cognitive behavioral therapy may involve examining whether an individual’s choices are rational. A therapist will look at the chain of thinking about a particular situation that an individual is engaged in, then try to disrupt that chain of thinking so a new way of thinking can emerge. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, helps clients accept what they cannot change and make goals for the future that are achievable. This is another example of a therapy trying to help a client make rational choices for the future and perhaps challenge irrational thoughts.
Strengths and Weakness of RCT
A strength of RCT is that it can help us to understand the motives behind individual, and even collective, behaviors. Why would an individual, group, or society choose a particular decision? What is the calculus and what are the expected rewards? RCT provides a framework for therapists to analyze and understand their clients’ behaviors and then perhaps seek to change these behaviors. RCT can be used to understand behaviors at the individual and group levels as well as across a number of disciplines. Furthermore, RCT can actually help practitioners understand behavior that on its face it not so rational by prompting them to seek to understand why it is in fact rational for their client.
Some also believe RCT does not take into enough consideration the contribution of values and ethics to decision making. According to Crossman (2019) RCT “does not explain why some people seem to accept and follow social norms of behavior that lead them to act in selfless ways or to feel a sense of obligation that overrides their self-interest”.
Another critique of RCT, according to Crossman, is that it is too individualistic. Some prefer not to use individualistic theories to understanding human behavior and decision making because they believe “they fail to explain and take proper account of the existence of larger social structures. That is, there must be social structures that cannot be reduced to the actions of individuals and therefore have to be explained in different terms.”
Rational choice theory is just one of a number of theories that social workers can use to guide their thinking about client behavior and help them choose therapeutic interventions to help their clients. Cognitive behavioral therapies are a popular choice of intervention for clinical social workers who wish to help clients recognize the rational purpose behind some their behaviors or to help their client change behaviors that serve a rational purpose but can be destructive or harmful.
B.A. Political Science| Vassar College
M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware
School Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program
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