Rational Choice Theory: Definition & Principles

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  • 0:01 Rational Choice Theory Defined
  • 1:10 Principles
  • 1:58 Assumptions
  • 3:29 Example
  • 4:55 Criticisms
  • 5:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

When we get down to it, states can only act through people. Consequently, if we want to understand state behavior in international relations, we need to understand human behavior. Rational choice theory attempts to do just this.

Rational Choice Theory Defined

States and most other international 'actors,' like intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations and multinational corporations, are intangible concepts that can only act through human beings. Students of international relations, as well as actors in the international system, want to know how leaders and other important decision-makers of these organizations and institutions make decisions so they can predict their actions in international relations. Rational choice theory is one attempt to explain how and why actors behave the way they do.

Rational choice theory is a theory in social science that argues human behavior, and social life in general, can be explained in terms of rational choices of individuals. Social interaction, including political interaction, is considered to be a type of exchange where individuals will interact with each other if the expected gains outweigh the expected costs arising from the interaction. For example, you may decide to enter into a friendship if you believe you will get more out of the friendship than the burden the friendship will impose upon you.


Let's take a quick look at its key principles and assumptions. Rational choice theory argues that people make choices based upon a set of individual preferences in a rational manner where they seek to maximize gain while minimizing loss.

Preferences can take different forms. A strict preference means that you prefer one choice over its alternative. For example, you prefer cola A over cola B. A weak preference means that you have a preference for at least some minimal outcome. For example, you prefer your cola to at least be caffeinated. Finally, you are indifferent if you have no preference for the available choices. For example, you may not care if the restaurant serves cola A or cola B; you'll take whatever is available.


In order to apply rational choice theory, we must make a few assumptions:

  • An individual acts rationally in pursuit of her own self-interest and not in the interests of others. Individuals seek to maximize their gains and minimize their losses.
  • An individual has sufficient information upon which to establish her preferences and perform her rational analysis.
  • Preferences are transitive in nature. This is a logical principle that sounds more complicated than it really is. According to transitivity, if someone prefers strawberry ice cream over vanilla ice cream, but vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream, then it logically follows that she'll prefer strawberry ice cream over chocolate ice cream.

In addition to these general assumptions, we need to make some assumptions about the world of international relations:

  • In order to understand the behavior of international actors, including states, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations and multinational companies, we must understand the behavior of the humans running them.
  • The behaviors of each individual can be added up in order to understand these international actors. In other words, you can understand how and why a state, or other international actor, acts the way they do by analyzing the aggregate choices made by each individual decision-maker acting on the nonhuman actor's behalf. For example, while a state may 'decide' to go to war, it's really the decisions of the humans operating the government that make the decision.


Let's look at a simple example of how the theory applies to international relations. Imagine that you are the leader of a country attempting to ink a treaty to end a long-standing conflict between you and your neighbor. Failure to conclude the treaty almost certainly will lead to a new war.

A key issue to resolve is the rights to a group of resource-rich islands off your country's coast. Other issues on the bargaining table include a trade dispute, pollution of an important river system, caused by your country's industries, that is shared by both countries, and a nasty drug smuggling trade across your borders. You also believe your neighbor's government is supporting a certain terrorist group that has cost over $300 million in property damage and over 100 lives.

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