Rational choice, messy realities

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 13 Dec 1995 11:44:19 +0900

The following was written in response to a lively debate on the
Dead Fukuzawa Society list. Thought it might be of interest to some here,

In re rational choice theoryi Jim Fallows writes,

"if the peasants' behavior doesn't fit obvious Western
economic rationality, you're saying that there must be some
other rationality behind it, and the key is to figure out what
that rationale is. I completely agree. But why do I need
'rational choice' to tell me that? Without the help of any
such theory, I can assume that people always do
ANYTHING for some reason that makes sense to them at
the time. The reason could be fear, superstition, imperfect
understanding of the situation, coercion, altrusim,
prejudice, loyalty, sheer force of habit, or whatever -- but by
definition *something* motivates them to do whatever they
do. What's the plus that the 'incentives' theories offer?
What am I not seeing here?"

I am not a political scientists, being instead an
anthropologist who, oddly enough, has found himself
working for the last 12 years as a copywriter and creative
director for Hakuhodo, Japan's 2nd largest advertising
agency. But the issues Jim raises are familiar conundrums
much debated in my own academic baliwick and ones to
which I would like to contribute along the following lines.

Historically, the issue arises when those who consider
themselves to be rational beings (Ancient Greeks, their
Victorian emulators) encounter others with unexpected

Response No. 1 is to see the Other as non-, sub- or frankly
irrational, a lower sort of being who operates in terms of
animal or vegetable functions, not having evolved to the
heights of reason. (We owe the basic framework to

Response No.2 is motivated by the humanitarian
recognition that the other is also a human being deserving
of some respect. Refusing to dismiss the Other's habits as
irrational, adherents of this view opt for attempts to
"understand the other's culture in its own terms."

Response No. 2 is laudable, but falls too easily into the kind
of prejudice conveyed by "When in Rome, do as the Romans
do," even if gladatorial games, extreme patriarchy, barf-
and-continue banquets, etc. seem, on naive first glance, to
be repugnant. From an intellectual point of view, it too
often becomes a kind of facile stereotyping that ignores the
considerable overlap in interests, values, and logic that
allow us to make deals with each other despite "cultural"

At its best rational choice offers, it seems to me, a useful
corrective to culturalist stereotyping. It also allows for use
of economic models to generate non-commonsense
predictions through simulations that may, occasionally,
prove valid.

At its worst rational choice suffers from the same defects as
culturalism. Like Dr. Pangloss, it shows us that whatever
is must be in this the best of all possible worlds. On the
whole, I prefer less elegance and more attention to messy


John McCreery