What is the Theory of Rational Choice?
Rational Choice Theory is one of several theories social workers use to evaluate client behavior and choose therapeutic interventions. Rational choice theory (RCT) explains the rationale process individuals use to make decisions to maximize the benefit for the individual, group, or society. Researchers and professionals use Rational Choice Theory to understand decision-making. Fields that use it include marketing, economics, organizational psychology, criminology, psychology, psychiatry, and social work.
Origins of Rational Choice Theory (RCT)
The rational choice theory has its roots in the 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. It is another theory developed by sociologist George Homans in the early 1960s. Exchange theory says that people make decisions and interact in society to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. Using the lens of exchange theory, decisions by individuals, groups, organizations, and even countries are transactional and aim to maximize profit and reduce costs.
RCT in the Behavioral Sciences and Clinical Work
RCT understands individuals’ and clients’ decision-making processes and motivations in the behavioral sciences and clinical work. Many people believe RCT is used to argue that individuals make decisions based on selfish or self-serving interests. But this is not always the case. Elster (2001) explained that rational decision-making could involve entirely altruistic motivations. Often, individual choices are 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. Still, highly altruistic motivations are entirely rational for some people.
What are the Disadvantages of Decision-Making?
Rational thoughts can be highly irrational as well. In the case of irrational decision-making, therapists need to understand what motivates a client to make the decisions 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 entirely rational for them. Understanding how clients view what is rational can help a therapist choose an approach that either seeks to adjust their thinking about what actions are 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 treated using a rational choice frame include obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, neurotic, and repressive behaviors.
Rational-Choice Theory of Neurosis
For example, Özdemir and others ( 2018) conceptualized the Rational-Choice Theory of Neurosis. They argue that repressive or neurotic behaviors are rational in that they can distract an individual from highly stressful or upsetting life events. According to the authors, disorders that may constitute a coping mechanism and logical response to extreme stress include panic disorder, agoraphobia, anorexia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But they point out that while symptoms distract from distressing thoughts, the individual may not be aware of why their behavior has changed.
Applications for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
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 looks at the chain of thinking for an individual’s particular situation and disrupts that chain of thinking. Then, a new way of thinking can emerge. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It helps clients accept what they cannot change and make achievable goals for the future. This is another example of treatment trying to help a client make rational choices for the future.
Strengths and Weakness of RCT
A strength of RCT is it helps us to understand the motives behind the individual and even collective behaviors. For example, 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. Then, therapists may use it to change these behaviors. Also, several disciplines use RCT to understand behaviors at the individual and group levels. Furthermore, RCT helps practitioners understand behavior that is not so rational on its face. Then, it prompts them to know why it is rational for their client.
RTC and Ethics in Decision Making
Some also believe RCT does not consider the contribution of values and ethics to decision-making. For example, 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.“
Is Rational Choice too Induvalistic?
Another critique of RCT, according to Crossman, is that it is too individualistic. Some prefer not to use individualistic theories to understand 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 and Social Workers
Rational choice theory is just one of several theories that social workers use to guide their thinking about client behavior. Additionally, it helps them choose therapeutic interventions to help their clients. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapies are a popular choice of intervention for clinical social workers. These therapies help clients recognize the rational purpose behind behaviors. And they are also used by those who want to help their clients change behaviors that serve a rational purpose but are destructive or harmful.