Rational choice theory



Simple material constraints and opportunities.

Complex, dynamic contexts of culture and institutions (rule regimes) as well as technologies; Material constraints and opportunities, and psychological and cognitive factors.


Radical decontextualization.

The atomistic, super-rational, self-interested individual outside of society and social relationships.

Emphasis on the social character of actors, their social and psychological embeddedness. Actors are engaged in multiple roles and social relations and are

creative/destructive/transformative agents who, among other things, may deviate from institutionalized principles of action, norms and situational constraints and, in some instances, transform the situation into one with new conditions, new norms, and new action opportunities and payoffs.

Principle of


Metaphysical universalism: a single universal principle of action, the maximization of utility, that is, rational choice, at the same time lacking innovative, creative, and transformative capabilities. The principle is applied universally, abstracting from all cultural and social contexts, civilizations, historical epochs, institutional spheres, social relationships, and cultural forms, etc.

Context dependent action. The social rules, norms, roles, institutional arrangements, groups, networks and organizations define context dependent action situations, guidelines and algorithms including possibly variants of instrumental rationality which may or may not be combined with other values; multi-value conditions, dilemmas, and contradictions are generated.

Motivation and values

Defined by a utility function or preferences which derive exogenously from the choice situation. Preferences are assumed to be complete, fully ordered and consistent, as well as stable over time and space.

An actor’s context dependent values and evaluative structures provide the basis of motivation and action in a given situation. They derive from the institutional setup, social relationships, and particular norms and roles.

Sacrality or deep values and morality

All preferences are of a single class. “Everything is negotiable. Actors have no particular morality, that is there are no transcendental preferences which trump ordinary preferences.

Some values belong to a sacred core grounded in individual and/or group identity, the institution or organization. “Not everything is negotiable.” Actors as social beings are moral agents and to a great extent try to act according to core norms and values, but make deviant choices when they feel justified or “coerced.”


A norm applies only if the self-interested actor choses to comply with it because it is in her self-interest.

In many instances, actors are committed to following the norms (multiple factors including self-interest).


Actor only accept institutional roles and norms if it is the actor’s self-interest. Consequently, institutions emerge in a moment, spontaneously.

In many instances, actors are committed to following norms and institutionalized rules (based on multiple factors including self-interest). Actors may try to bring about a change in an institution because it conflicts with a key norm or value, or fails to operate properly or effectively.

Cognitive framework

A cognitive framework incorporates complete information and full knowledge of the actor’s choice situation, her action alternatives and their outcomes and eventual payoffs. On the other hand, there is little or no cultural or institutional knowledge (why should there be if an actor and her situation are outside society).

An actor has incomplete information about the situation, her action alternatives, and possible outcomes, and, as a result, unintended consequences of choices. On the other hand, a socialized actor has substantial cultural and institutional knowledge about the situation, the institutional arrangements, her role(s), and social relationships and even in some instances how to bring about change in norms and institutions.

Cognitive-evaluative capabilities

Possessing super-capability of cognition, calculation and choice according to the fixed axiom of rational choice.

No Antigone dilemma or Hamlet syndrome of blocked choice.

Bounded cognitive, evaluation, and choice capabilities. Contradiction, incoherence and dilemmas arise because of multiple values and norms which do not typically’ fit together neatly in any given situation. Antigone type dilemmas and Hamlet syndromes are to be expected.