Rational Choice Theory

by Robert Whiston FRSA, first published  March 2010

If not in operation at the present time then at some time in the future the state, which already has access to Rational Choice Theory (RCT), will be tempted to implement it.

The history of Rational Choice Theory can be summarised in this way; it is by no means new to suggest that people act rationally, e.g. Max Weber (1920), but such human actions were viewed as a complex cocktail of both rational and non-rational elements; of traditional or habitual action; of emotional or effectual action; of value-oriented action. Bronislaw Malinowski (1922) and Marcel Mauss (1925) looked at how ‘social exchange’ was embedded in structures of reciprocity and social obligation.

George Homans is said to have pioneered the establishing Rational Choice Theory in sociology in 1961. [1] During the 1960s and 1970s, Blau and then Coleman and Cook extended and enlarged his framework. By 1990 they had developed it into a formal, mathematical model of rational actions.

Basic to Rationality and Social Exchange Theory and all forms of rational choice theory is the assumption that complex social phenomena can be explained in terms of the elementary individual actions of which they are composed.

What distinguishes Rational Choice Theory from other theories is that it denies the existence of any kinds of action other than the purely rational and calculative. Hence, it can be accused of lacking sophistication and adaptability.

Detractors of RCT argue that where social exchanges are recurrent, rather than episodic, it is possible for cooperation to emerge as a rational strategy. They argue the randomness of self-interested rational individuals could not generate a stable social order on an economic basis. For detractor, social order can only be explained through the non-rational but normative element in the individual.[2]

Why should we be concerned about something as abstract as RCT ? 

The answer it that firstly, it is already being used against people at present especially in theUSand theUKand it is capable of extension into other arenas.

Secondly, the key phrase has already been given namely, that “… where social exchanges are recurrent rather than episodic, it is possible for cooperation to emerge as a rational strategy” between antagonists. Where, in our case, the antagonists are the judiciary and fathers it has potentially serious repercussions and what could be more recurrent than episodic than a father applying time and again to a family court to see his child ? This is how imperatives induce blindness.

Social Engineering already reduces men and fathers to Pavlovian responses in matters of child custody. There is no reason why the courts will not – if they have not already unconsciously done so – overtly deploy this tool to ensure their power remains unchallenged by fathers.

In addition, fathers uniquely endure peer pressure and societal expectations. The urge to “do the right thing” circumscribes men’s ability to forge new solutions. Their pride, their dignity, fetters them as slaves and they are little more than hostages to fortune.

Rational Choice Theory is logical and assumes rational decisions are made by individuals to random socials inputs. The elementary unit of social life is the individual human action. Even an apparently irrational decision can spring from a fundamentally sound choice.

It assumes that people are motivated by money and by gratification in a generally rational/logical manner. This allows for a predictive, model(s) of human behaviour to be constructed. Around 80% of the population, if not more, are presumed to be rational / logical thus when RCT is used it can be rated as effective.

Economics, where RCT is most common, has long appeared the most successful of the social sciences. The accuracy of its predictive abilities, vis-à-vis human nature, has been the envy of those in other Social Sciences.

Not surprisingly, other social scientists (sociologists, criminologists and political scientists) have adopted Rational Choice principles hoping to improve accuracy and predictiveness in their own field.

Today, RCT is already in use by Britain’s Home Office (Ministry of Justice). It is the foundation on which the Home Office’s ‘Situational Crime Prevention’ (SCP) strategy rests.[3]  This strategy seeks to guide society in a preferred direction utilising the tools RCT provides.

But whereas the original Rational Choice was economic in nature and assumed people were motivated by money and by the possibility of making a profit, this is not true in other areas of life.

Variations and substitutions have therefore had to be made to the original theory. Instead of profit the model contains the idea that all ‘actions’ are fundamentally ‘rational’ in character; that there is ‘social exchange’; and that people calculate the likely advantages and disadvantages they might experience (i.e. costs and benefits). [4] 

For the Home Office, a rational choice perspective assumes that offenders seek to benefit in some way from their offending behaviour. Thus the Home Office was able to modify the original concept and determine that:-

  1. offending behaviour involves decision making (be it rational or irrational)
  2. decisions invite costs and benefits in a criminal’s mind when deciding to commit a crime
  3. that these decision are constrained, i.e. by time, cognitive ability and information etc and therefore the rationality of the offender will be ‘limited’ rather than the ‘normal’ gamut
  4. the costs and benefits for the criminal to avoid repeat offending.
  5. choice selection for an offender is event (crime) specific and therefore policies must be specific not  generalised

If economic action involves an exchange of goods and services, then social interaction (‘social exchange’) involves the exchange of approval and certain other valued behaviours.

If crime is the result of active decision making in response to specific situations and/or events counter measures must be equally specific.

This brings us directly to the brooding confrontation between the state exercising its power and the citizen’s rights or more precisely, between the Judiciary and the dispossessed divorced fathers.

Fathers, when dealing with divorce and custody, frequently battle alone before accepting defeat by the system. Occasionally they will be near the final stages when they realise that they are not alone against the system but one man among millions of others.

But by then it is too late, they have been sucked into the system and have become conditioned, like Pavlovian dogs, to follow procedures and humbly apply to court for access/visitation rights.

In the beginning a father is sure the evidence alone will be enough to win the day. When this does not happen they remain supremely confident that at the next hearing in a few weeks time any reasonable judge after viewing the data will find in their favour. For months they remain optimistic, but when the next court hearings come and go and do not bring that definite breakthrough doubts enter their thoughts.

Only many months, sometimes years, later do they realise the futility of the exercise and know that to ask for more time with their child is a forlorn hope.

To fathers these events and reactions are normal. To a Behavioralist the pattern is to be expected. But to RCT there is room to exploit the carrot and sick, the reward and punishment entailed.

The granting of visitation rights diminishes over time and repeated re-applications to courts for restoration of rights only diminishes the amount of time a father spends with his child.

Arguably, this is a direct result of courts not wishing to be seen as impotent in the face of belligerent mothers who are actually setting the agenda and the amount of time they are prepared to concede.

But why are the courts so intransigent, so insensitive ?

  • are they ignorant know no better ?
  • are they being deliberately difficult ?
  • are they sexually/gender biased against fathers ?
  • are they unaware that their actions ensure fathers remain ‘engaged’ in their game ?

But they could, of course, be perfectly well aware of Rational Choice Theory and be simply applying it to make absolutely certain that fathers remain ‘engaged’ in the their game.

If this is the case, one of the antidotes is for fathers to become ‘disengaged’; to ignore courts and court orders and/or to publicly disown their children before the presiding judge. This is the essential element of the Retreat Strategy advocated by Ivor Catt. It takes great courage to be prepared to take that stance and defy threats made by a court. Few have actually adopted it but when they have, they been successful.

The reason for this must be the father’s promise to the judge never to see write or communicate in any way with his children again (he becomes dead to them). This neutralises the mother’s challenges to the court’s authority and places the court on the horns of a dilemma.

Another antidote is ‘Collective action’. All RCT based policy is premised on the actions and rationality of the individual. ‘Collective action’ is known to present problems for RCT.

Planning for multiples of isolated individuals acting in concert becomes unpredictable.

Planning for multiples of united individuals acting irrationally but in concert becomes even more unpredictable.

But why should we busy ourselves looking for solutions and antidotes. Wouldn’t the best solution be to urge it to implode and hasten the structure to reach that point ?

At a time when there are hints of a standardised divorce regime across the EU in the future, we should be concerned at the ramifications for other social policy matters.

To work equitably such a system will have to be dumbed down. Those nations with high thresholds required before a divorce is granted will have to acquiesce in the face of those nations with lower standards, for it is within human nature – and the EU mandate – not to impose higher tariffs or barriers but lower them.

The European Commission as able to write in 2003 that with regards “Changing family policy” the EU is no official definition of the family. [5] Further it discovered that:

  • “ …. the family does not figure among the common objectives of the European treaties …”
  • “The European Union has no competence in the field of “family policies”, which come under nationalremit and aredefined and implemented exclusively by the Member States.”

Further extracts can be found at Annex A below.

If divorce is standardised across the EU, will child custody follow in its wake ?  What shape and form will such a regime take ? What will be its sting, i.e. the price fathers have to pay ?

Why should we believe that this and more might very well happen ?

The reason is that the EU is very much a case of ‘work-in-progress’. It is not yet complete.

Yet at its heart can be found radical feminists and lobby groups sympathetic to their cause. What have men and fathers to offer by way of competition and possible allies ?

The answer is almost a foregone conclusion; nothing and very little.

The EU is still evolving from an economic union to a political and thence to judicially one. It will surely follow in the footsteps of the great political and economic blocs.

Pax Romana was followed by Pax Britannica (1815), which was superseded by Pax Americana (1945).

If Europe is to fulfil its destiny as many ambitious politicians seem to want, Pax Europa is inevitable.

If that day does dawn what will it mean for men and fathers if we are not a strong voice at the heart of a distant government ?


Annex A

  EU trends’ – Changing family and family policy

 Institute for Quality of Life; Raluca Popescu; 2003

 [Extract ]

See also

“Family Benefits and Family Policies in Europe”, European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment and Social Affairs, Unit E.2 http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/missoc/2002/intro_en.pdf 

Researchers, political actors and public opinion in general seem to favor the idea that family has suffered deep transformations for the last decades. The changes occurred were so important that even the concept of family has become ambiguous, covering a wider range of realities than ever before. The typical image of family assumed into scientific or political discourserefers to an institution preserving national values and traditions. On the contrary, family has become a “barometer” for social changes, facing an obvious process of democratisation and liberalisation, being more and more integrated in global society, influencing the global dynamics for itself.

Changing family policy

The family does not figure among the common objectives of the European treaties, where there is no official definition of the family.

The European Union has no competence in the field of “family policies”, which come under national remit and are defined and implemented exclusively by the Member States.[ http://www.utlib.ee/ekollekt/diss/mag/2006/b17983319/riisalu.pdf ]

 Concepts of family and households

 The definitions of family formulated inrelation to social security benefits and associated legislation differ from one country to another. There is a group of states that makes clear distinction between the concepts of family and household and another group that uses two terms indiscriminately for the same thing (EC, 2002). Countries that make a distinction attribute a sociological and even legal value to the term “family” and a strictly economic value to the term “household” because of their cultural heritage (these mainly include southern European countries and UK). The other countries either make no distinction, or use only the term “household”. OnlyFrance mentions a third concept – “foyer” (home), considering that it can encompass all existing situations. 

In some countries, it is linked with marriage; in almost all countries, it is linked to kinship (blood ties) of some kind (parentage, adoption), and often it is linked to both. In Norway as an extreme case, an unmarried person living alone is considered as fully flagged family. 

The answers to the question regarding the role of the term “family” in family benefits are quite divergent between countries that have established a precise definition of term and those that have not. Amongst those that have not, the term “family” thereforedoes not necessarily enter into the eligibility requirements. For example, some countries like Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Iceland, Norway or UK frequently use term “child” not “family” when defining benefits in their protection systems. 

Except the Mediterranean countries, the new forms of family appear to berecognized for entitlement to many benefits and have the same rights and obligations as traditional families, with the exception of homosexual couples. These are recognised only in France, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland and Sweden and are able to adopt children only in a few countries, although a heated debate on the issue is in progress in several countries. A special attention is being paid everywhereto single parent families.  [ http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/missoc/2002/intro_en.pdf ]



[2] Parsons, 1937

[3] Home Office http://www.crimereduction.homeoffice.gov.uk/learningzone/rct.htm Also Understanding Crime    Displacement: An application of Rational Choice Theory. Cornish, D. and Clarke, R.V (1998)  Criminology Theory   Reader.  New YorkUniversityPress.

[4] RCT hold that individuals must anticipate the outcomes of alternative courses of action and calculate that which will be best for them. Rational individuals choose the alternative that is likely to give them the greatest satisfaction (Heath 1976:  3; Carling 1992: 27; Coleman 1973). 

[5]  Family Benefits and Family Policies in Europe, European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment and Social Affairs, Unit E.2 http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/missoc/2002/intro_en.pdf  and      http://www.utlib.ee/ekollekt/diss/mag/2006/b17983319/riisalu.pdf


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