Rational choice theory detailed analysis

Rational choice theory assumes that individuals are better placed to make decisions that safeguard their self-interests. Therefore, whatever goals are pursued by individuals, such will be done in ways that give them maximum benefits.As a result, various political actions such as elections, budgeting, and legislation can either be predicted or explained. This theory originated in the economics discipline but afterward found application in other disciplines as well, such as political science. According to Hindmoor (2010), a rational choice theory has somewhat become prominent in the political science realm, partially because it has sharply divided opinion.


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There are a number of advantages that come with the application of the rational choice theory. First, as seen before, rational theory brings the aspect of predictability in the study of political phenomena. For example, political parties will usually aim at votes maximization during the campaign period Hindmoor (2010) so that they may either gain or retain power. As a result, most of their policies and promises will be geared towards this goal. It is no surprise therefore that quite often, political parties would move towards the centreground Hindmoor (2010) so as to appeal to large sections of the electorate.

Another advantage of rational choice is its generality. This theory can be applied to any situation, which in itself is an advantage. This is because the principles are the same and can be applied across the board. Therefore, whether the case at hand is an election, budgetary allocation, legislation, and even the political choices to be made, the principle is the same. What one needs to do is to look at the ‘environment setting in which the actor finds himself’ (Ogu 2013, pg. 3). As a result, analysis or prediction of a situation can easily be done.

There is also parsimony in the theory which enhances its application. According to (Ogu 2013) what changes from an actor to another, even in the same situation, is their preferences and beliefs. Hence, analysis has just to be tinkered with a bit to cover these two aspects, and we are in a position to make a determination of how they are going to behave. For example, if two people, from different political affiliations, say an anti-gay marriage activist and a racial minority, are to head to the polling station, by just analyzing their preferences, we can postulate and predict with much accuracy, their voting patterns.


One disadvantage of this theory is that people are not always rational in their decisions. In fact, they are only rational to the extent that they are able to discuss or reason on how best to achieve their goals. If this is not possible, then decisions made may not be one that can achieve their best interest. On good scenario to explain this is decision making under conditions of uncertainty. In these conditions, the available information may not be enough to enable the actors to make decisions which best take care of their interest. Therefore, a rational decision, in such instances, cannot be made.

Even if the information was available, Hindmoor (2010) observes that people are known to sometimes fail to make the best use out of the available information. People are known to be susceptible to a number of factors that makes them make poor decisions with regard to their situations. For example, sometimes individuals may succumb to groupthink. This is a situation whereby the group ends up making wrong decisions given that those dissenting feel outnumbered and see no need to make their dissenting positions known. Besides, some people may discount all information that does not fall in line with their beliefs. Hence, in this instance, decisions are made based on what supports the beliefs of the decision-maker. In these two examples, rational theory cannot be used to analyze or even predict political decisions. At best, what a political scientist can come up with is a supposition which might not be entirely true.

Another disadvantage of rational choice relates to the assumption about self-interest on which it is based. It is not true that always people will act in their own self-interest. For example, if an individual was to cast his vote, it is highly likely that he will vote for a party that is promising what he wants or what is close to what he wants. However, it is also true that he may vote in the interest of a section of the society and not necessarily his own self-interest. On the other hand, if we are to take this argument forward, we could argue that governments would not act in the interest of the public (Hindmoor 2010) something that is not entirely true.

Another problem with rational choice should come from the fact that ‘ very few people would do things for the same reason’ (Wuffle 1999 pg 1) .Therefore, attributing a political phenomenon to one or two reason will be fallacious. For example, in the event a political party has lost an election, we cannot attribute it to the fact that its policies were not favorable. There might be other reasons which made the majority not to vote them. Therefore, rational choice, in itself, cannot be used to explain concisely, a situation, given the complexity of political decisions.


Hindmoor, A 2010, ‘Rational Choice’ in D. Marsh and G. Stoker (eds), Theory and

Methods in Political Science, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp. 42-59.


Ogu, M 2013 ‘Rational choice theory: assumptions, strengths, and greatest weaknesses in application outside the western milieu context’, Arabian Journal of Business and Management Review, vol 1 no. 3, pp 90-99


Wuffle, A 1999, ‘Credo of a “Reasonable Choice” Modeler’, Journal of Theoretical

Politics, vol 11, no. 2, pp. 203-6.


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