Introduction to Rational Choice Theory in Social Work

Rational choice theory in social work is an important concept because it helps explain how individuals make decisions. According to the definition of rational choice theory, every choice that is made is completed by first considering the costs, risks and benefits of making that decision. Choices that seem irrational to one person may make perfect sense to another based on the individual’s desires.

Those who are studying for a social work degree will learn a variety of evidence-based theories to help them inform their work. Learning and understanding the meaning behind rational choice theory and seeing rational choice theory examples help future social workers characterize, explain and anticipate social outcomes. That can improve the treatment and services they provide their clients.

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What is Rational Choice Theory?

Rational choice theory can apply to a variety of areas, including economics, psychology and philosophy. This theory states that individuals use their self-interests to make choices that will provide them with the greatest benefit. People weigh their options and make the choice they think will serve them best. 

How individuals decide what will serve them best is dependent on personal preferences. For example, one individual may decide that abstaining from smoking is best for them because they want to protect their health. Another individual will decide they want to smoke because it relieves their stress. Although the choices are opposite, both individuals make these choices to get the best result for themselves.

Rational choice theory conflicts with some other theories in social work. For example, psychodynamic theory states that humans seek gratification due to unconscious processes. Conversely, rational choice theory states that there is always a rational justification for behaviors. Individuals try to maximize their rewards because they’re worth the cost.

History of rational choice theory

Rational choice theory origins date back centuries. Philosopher Adam Smith is considered the originator of rational choice theory. His essay “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” from 1776, proposed human nature’s tendency toward self-interest resulted in prosperity. Smith’s term “the invisible hand” referred to unseen forces driving the free market.

Smith used the work of philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” (1651) to influence his own work. In “Leviathan,” Hobbes explained that political institution functioning was a result of individual choices. Philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote “The Prince” in 1513, also introduced ideas related to rational choice theory in his treatise.

Moving from economics to the social sciences, in the 1950s and 1960s, sociologists George C. Homans, Peter Blau and James Coleman promoted rational choice theory in relation to social exchange. These social theorists stated that a rational calculation of an exchange of costs and rewards drives social behavior. 

Rational choice theory in social interactions explains why people enter into or end individual and group relationships.

Assumptions of rational choice theory

In order to fit the criteria for rational choice theory, the following assumptions are made.

  1. All actions are rational and are made due to considering costs and rewards.
  2. The reward of a relationship or action must outweigh the cost for the action to be completed.
  3. When the value of the reward diminishes below the value of the costs incurred, the person will stop the action or end the relationship.
  4. Individuals will use the resources at their disposal to optimize their rewards.

Rational choice theory expresses that individuals are in control of their decisions. They don’t make choices because of unconscious drives, tradition or environmental influences. They use rational considerations to weigh consequences and potential benefits.

Applications of rational choice theory

Rational choice theory has a wide variety of applications in all types of spheres affecting human populations.

  • Economics and business: Rational choice theory can explain individual purchasing behaviors.
  • Politics: Rational choice theory can be used to explain voting behaviors, the actions of politicians and how political issues are handled.
  • Sociology: Rational choice theory can explain social phenomena. This is because all social change and institutions occur because of individual actions.
  • Addiction treatment: Rational choice theory can be used to identify addiction motivations and provide substance alternatives that are equally beneficial to patients.

When there’s a need to describe, predict and explain human behavior, rational choice theory can be applied.

Strengths and weaknesses of rational choice theory

Rational choice theory can be helpful in understanding individual and collective behaviors. It helps to pinpoint why people, groups and society as a whole move toward certain choices, based on specific costs and rewards.

Rational choice theory also helps to explain seemingly “irrational” behavior. Because rational choice theory states that all behavior is rational, any type of action can be examined for underlying rational motivations. Rational choice theory can promote inquiry and understanding, helping differing parties, like a client and a therapist, to recognize the other’s rationale.

A limitation of rational choice theory is that it focuses on individual action. While one could say that individual action drives large social structures, some rational choice theory critics argue the theory is too limited in its explanation.

Another weakness of rational choice theory is that it doesn’t account for intuitive reasoning or instinct. For decisions that must be made in an instant, such as decisions that influence survival, there may not be time to weigh the costs and benefits.

How Does Rational Choice Theory Apply to Social Work?

In social work, rational choice theory helps social workers understand the motivations of those they work with. Using rational choice theory, social workers can uncover why their clients do certain things and have gotten into certain situations, even when they seem unfavorable.

Rational choice theory can also help social workers when they’re designing interventions and treatments. Knowing that their clients will make decisions based on what benefits them, social workers can use that understanding to guide their interactions with and recommendations for their clients.

Social workers can use rational choice theory to:

  • Investigate the meaning behind their clients’ relationships, including with friend groups and romantic partners, including when those relationships are abusive or seem toxic.
  • Examine why their clients behave in certain ways, including engaging in self-destructive behaviors and addictions.
  • Understand how family dynamics and social interactions affect their clients.
  • Create a better relationship between themselves and their clients, by positioning their work in a way that benefits the client.
  • Promote interventions and create treatments that their clients will want to engage in because they see the benefits.
  • Position resources so that clients understand how those resources will benefit them.

To optimize the use of rational choice theory in social work, social workers will need to create a thorough assessment that takes into consideration the details of the motivations behind their clients’ behavior.

Criticism of Rational Choice Theory

One potential issue with rational choice theory (PDF, 287 KB) is that it doesn’t account for non-self-serving behavior, such as philanthropy or helping others when there’s a cost but no reward to the individual. Rational choice theory also doesn’t take into consideration how ethics and values might influence decisions.

Another criticism is that rational choice theory doesn’t comment on the influence of social norms. An argument against rational choice theory is that most people follow social norms, even when they’re not benefitting from adhering to them.

Also, some critics say that rational choice theory doesn’t account for choices that are made due to situational factors or that are context-dependent. Factors like emotional state, social context, environmental factors and the way choices are posed to the individual may result in decisions that don’t align with rational choice theory assumptions.

Some critics also state that rational choice theory doesn’t account for individuals who make decisions based on fixed learning rules, in that they do things because that’s the way they’ve learned to do them—even when the decision has higher costs and fewer benefits.

Summary and Resources for Further Learning

Rational choice theory can be used in conjunction with other social work theories, like social learning theory and psychosocial development theory. Rational choice theory provides a framework for social worker intervention. It’s a jumping-off point for understanding clients and for analyzing cases using research and evidence to create more effective treatment.

To learn more about rational choice theory, check out these resources.

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Last Updated: February 2022