by Cesare Romano

For almost two centuries, rationality has been a central postulate of social sciences. There are various ways to determine whether a certain behavior is “rational”, but, in general and at least since Enlightenment, we think one is acting “rationally” if one tries to maximize one’s own “utility”.

Like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, this highly rational being, the homo economicus, free from the unsteady influences of emotion or irrationality, given a choice would take the option with the highest “expected utility”. When confronted with multiple options, he would be consistent in choices. Whenever he fails to maximize utility, it is because of incomplete or faulty information. Given the right information, homo economicus will always do the “right” thing (i.e. maximize utility).

Yet, irrationality is part of our daily life. Some of us might be like Mr. Spock, but most are, well, just human (indeed Spock is a Vulcan, not a Human!). Everyone knows that feelings, “irrationality”, play a big role in decision-making. Even when given perfect information human beings might fail to take the right decision. We can all come up with countless examples of “irrationality” at play from the micro to the macro level.

Rationality has been a fundamental postulate of economics for long, but now economists are starting to abandon the assumption and are finally coming to grips with the fact that human beings are not Mr. Spock. Since the end of the nineties, after yet another stock exchange crash that could not be logically explained, economists have recognized the essential flaw in the postulate. Today there is a growing school of economists who are drawing on a vast range of behavioral traits identified by experimental psychologists to correct their models to take into account irrationality.

This development did not go completely unnoticed in the international relations/political science/international law field, but, a few pioneers aside, in our field “rationality” is still everyone’s core assumption. While we have no problem admitting that one single individual might behave irrationally, we cannot accept that a government (usually made of a group of highly skilled individuals), or even a whole nation, or even the whole world at once, might act irrationally. Thus, if we cannot take decisive action against climate change is because we lack full information on the dynamics, costs and benefits of climate control. If Iran tinkers with nuclear material it is because it appreciates costs/benefits differently than us, and because Iran knows something we do not know. Any rational being in the same position and with the same information of Iran would do the same. If the US invades Iraq it is because it does not have full information on the lack of WMD or because it has no information, or wrong information, about the reaction of the local population to the occupation. Kim Jong-il is acting perfectly rationally. We just need to put ourselves in his shoes, have the information he has, and then we will do the same (morality has no role in all of this).

Let’s instead assume Kim Jong-il is just a psychopath in need of treatment, and that the US government has taken decisions on the basis of irrational arguments. Scary? Yes, irrationality is always scary. But even irrationality is predictable, if we understand how it works.

It is high time we adjust our international relations theories to take into account “irrationality”. If we do that, instead of creating international law to cope with problems after they emerge, which is what we invariably do right now, we might be able to create international law that can prevent problems in the first place. That would bring international governance to a far superior level.

8 Responses

  1. I don’t think Kim Jong-Li is a psycopath. His behavior is perfectly rational. Evil, but rational. He did exactly what he needed to do to get the upper hand against the United States, at exactly the time when the US hands were tied, not just because of the US entanglement in Iraq, but because of the weakened resolve of the American public in the battle against these terrible, ferocious enemies (this is a public that is terribly worried about the civil rights of Bin Laden’s driver but unconcerned about nuclear holocaust in Asia). It is the old story of tyrants taking advatage of the openness of democracies in order to bring them to their knees. To be sure, some folks are irrational in international relations. But neither the Iranian nor the North Korean thugs seem to me good examples of that.

  2. While it’s an interesting and certainly true observation that human beings and states act on the basis of an often very primitive rationality, I wonder how this can affect the development of international law. I see it more as good material for an international relations analysis.

  3. John,

    As Cesare said, ‘It is high time we adjust our international relations theories to take into account “irrationality”.’


    There are, as Jon Elster and others have noted, limits to rational choice methodology and the assumption of rationality (incidentally, it need not be always about the ‘maximization of utility’). And in principle, there is no reason why such a method cannot account for irrationality, for if we know what counts as ‘rationality,’ presumably we have some idea (or should have some idea) as to what counts for ‘irrationality.’ There is no need, in my opinion, to jettison rational choice theory for international relations and international law (I assume these are inextricably intertwined), and there is insufficient reason to rule out other methods and theories provided we are explicit as to our methodological choice. There is, after all a field of ‘political psychology’ that may be relevant here, and it’s been around for some time now, but methods and theories are often the stuff of academic fads and fashions, so perhaps it’s understandable that it has yet to be taken seriously by practitioners in international relations and law.

    Before we think it prudent or wise to abandon rational choice theory, I think we should do our homework, in other words, examine the discussions and debates surrounding same. Toward that end, and because this is a topic that has intrigued me for some time now, I’m listing here a sample of representative titles that would help as to regard some basic conceptual clarity about the issues surrounding rational choice and methodologies in the social sciences in general. Reticence would be in order for those not familiar with the bulk of the arguments entertained in these books:

    Amadae, S.M. Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

    Elster, Jon. The Cement of Society: A Study of Social Order. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Elster, Jon. Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Hausman, Daniel M. and Michael S. McPherson, eds. Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 2006.

    Kincaid, Harold. Philosophical Foundations of the Social Sciences: Analyzing Controversies in Social Research. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Miller, Richard W. Fact and Method: Explanation, Confirmation and Reality in the Natural and Social Sciences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    Sen, Amartya. Rationality and Freedom. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002.

    Shapiro, Ian. The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unviversity Press, 2005.

    Shapiro, Ian, Rogers M. Smith and Tarek E. Masoud, eds. Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Turner, Stephen and Paul A. Roth, eds. The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

  4. I must enquire, Mr. O’Donnell, are you the same Patrick S. O’Donnell from here?

  5. Mr. Gross,

    I’ve sent you an e-mail answering your question.

  6. Cesare is certainly correct that rational choice models are imperfect, and I agree that it would be great to generate models of behavior that incorporate this reality. I disagree with the claim that few have attempted this task. Debates about whether to use a rational choice approach or some alternative are a constant fact of life in the international relations literature, and serious people have weighted in on all sides. Both “liberal theory” and “constructivism,” for example, use assumptions that lead to state behavior which could be seen as irrational if one views the state as a black box. Further, both of these approaches are widely used in international relations. They are also used by legal scholars. It is also worth adding that rational choice itself is relatively new to legal debates and remains a minority approach.

    There is much to learn from the existing methodological debates, and one lesson is the one Cesare presents — it is difficult (and probably impossible) to understand every wrinkle of our world with only rational choice assumptions. Some alternative assumptions are needed.

    But before we embrace an alternative assumption about how states make decisions, we should take a moment to consider what that alternative is. International relations types have been going in circles on this issue for a long time and what seems fairly clear is that there is currently no alternative set of general assumptions that can be applied to a wide variety of problems and that can generate useful predictions or conclusions without additional assumptions. In practice, this means that the alternatives are used in a somewhat ad hoc way and must be tailored to specific contexts. This reality affects how these approaches can be (and are) used.

    In some instances these approaches are not only useful, but necessary to understand behavior. It is difficult to understand the level of protectionism states adopt, for example, without a public choice theory of state decision making. I think it is probably impossible to understand changes in the human rights behavior of states over the last 60 years without at least some appeal to constructivist notions. So these alternative approaches are important to our understanding of the world, and are worthy of serious attention.

    If one wants to make predictions, however, the most commonly used alternatives have serious drawbacks. If domestic politics is the source or irrationality, for instance, we need a model of those politics, and it is hard to find such models that can be applied to a range of problems. This is because the world of sub-state actors is complicated and we don’t have much confidence that we can figure out how a particular issue will be resolved. We, therefore, cannot easily predict how the country will behave. Now suppose that there are several countries involved, each with a different domestic politics. At that point the analysis descends quickly into speculation. Constructivism has a similar problem. It is one thing to accept that the preferences of states or individuals change over time or in response to social context. It is much, much more difficult to produce a model of how or when preferences change that can lead us through an analysis of alternative policy proposals.

    Where does that leave us? First, rational choice is defensible on the grounds that it presents a good (though not perfect) basic approach to decision making by states. We all believe that states generally pursue some conception of their own interest (or the interest of their leaders), even if we think there are periodic deviations. Unless we believe some specified alternative assumption is more accurate, rational choice seems like the way to go.

    Second, I think it is clear that diversity in methodology is important. The standard alternatives of liberalism, constructivism and rational choice (in both its realist and institutionalist forms) all have different advantages and drawbacks.

    Third, when using one of these approaches we should remain faithful to it or, at least, be very clear about departures. A rational choice approach that sneaks in some form of irrationality in order to generate a result is misleading and should be discouraged. A liberal approach that does not have consistent assumptions about how sub-state actors behave is similarly misleading.

    Fourth, we should be as clear and possible about assumptions, and we should only go where our assumptions take us. If Kim Jong-il is crazy, we still need to make some assumption about how he makes decisions — otherwise how can we ever make judgments about what policies will affect him?

    Finally, though it is fair game to ask how an analysis would change under different assumptions, the burden should be on the person asking the question to suggest alternative assumptions. Saying “what if Pakistan is not rational?” is not an alternative assumption, it is simply a refusal to adopt any assumption. The correct answer to that question, I think, is to say if Pakistan is not rational, then there is absolutely no way to know what they will do unless we make some other assumption. If one asks, on the other hand, “what if moderates within Pakistan gain the upper hand with respect to dealing with Washington?” then we have a coherent and useful alternative assumption.

    So rationality is certainly, and obviously, imperfect, but if the perfect is not to be the enemy of the good, we need to have an alternative (and presumably better) assumption to take its place. It has often, though not always, proven to be devilishly hard to figure out what that alternative should be.

  7. Thanks Professor Guzman: that was an illuminating hence helpful treatment of the salient issues, particularly for someone like me, lacking formal training in international law. But I suspect not a few IL experts might benefit as well.

  8. Well, my postng was supposed to provoke debate (like all postings I did). It looks like I was successful in smoking out Andrew and make him share his knowledge and wisdom with us! Bravo.

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