What is the main criticism directed at the rational choice approach?
The main criticism directed at the rational choice approach, or the criticism that is the most serious in its scope and impact with regard to the near denunciation of the rational choice model, is the attack on the basic assumptions of rationality and autonomy ascribed to the individual player-actors in each situation or game presented in reality. Within the confines of the theory, the rational choice approach assumes that all players are rational, meaning that they all have full information about their choices, strategies and outcomes of these choices. They are also endowed with a full knowledge of all of the choices, strategies and outcomes of any choices made by any other players in the game at hand. Yet in the real world, this level of rationality is never achieved. People are never intelligent enough, or informed enough to make statistically and mathematically sound choices based on what is in their best interest. The best that people can do is estimate what they think is in their best interest while taking the chance that the unintended consequences of their actions will either be so minimal as to cause no real change to their situation or will be serendipitous in causing some unforeseen good in their future. This lack of rationality on the part of all of the players in essence destroys the theoretical basis of the model. Taking this into account, theorists have taken the rational choice model further by adding a dimension of bounded rationality, i.e. removing the infinite amount of choices from the table and letting a player either scan the few that he/she can easily comprehend and chose the maximum payoff from among them or choose the first that satisfies the most of their basic priorities. This approach still fails to take into account that the player is still acting irrationally from the standpoint of a full information assumption. Basically, introducing a concept such as bounded rationality is a simple way for the theorists to decide that, while rational choice as a whole is untenable, because they have put so much stock into it as a theory they cannot just scrap it. Thus they feel that they need to hang onto it at all costs and hence, they introduce a way in which they can cover themselves from the accusation that they are dealing solely in a theoretic framework without regard to reality. In reality, despite this addition, actors still are forced to act even more irrationally because of a lack of seeing every option. Without a distinct idea what all of the options are, there is no way that a player can be expected to know what is in his or her best interest, let alone what will maximize their outcomes and gains. Thus, players are left with the choice of using all the tools at their disposal to determine the best approximation of what is in their best interest and choosing it without ever knowing what the full implication of their decision will be.
In reality, all players in almost all games (excepting those of course which are simplified down to one or two elements simply for theoretical descriptions) are limited in information, are limited in time and are limited in cognitive ability to make the decisions in a fully rational and subjective manner. This is further complicated when one comes to consider multiple points of equilibrium within the construct of the game. When an individual is confronted with multiple equilibrium how can one rationally determine which of the equilibrium is rationally the best outcome for the player? Especially when, as has been discussed, the player lacks full information not only about his/her own choices and outcomes, but also about the outcomes of any and all strategies adopted by the other players in the game. It would be virtually impossible for the player to in any sense be able to adopt a strategy that would be the most beneficial for him/her individually.
The second part of this assumption then comes in to play. The rational choice theory assumes that each individual player is completely autonomous and independent in their choice of strategies. This cannot in any way be assumed in reality. No man is ever completely free from the social structures and institutions from within which he is playing the game. If sociology has taught us anything, it is that we are, to at least one degree or another, the product of our own experience. A person cannot face a problem or decision without relying on the previous experience that he or she has accrued with regard to the options. That is part of the way that we approximate the best possible outcomes for ourselves. This is especially true when we are faced with a decision which is either the same or similar to a decision we have already made. The outcome of that experience will definitely color the choices that we make.
This causes an internal inconsistency with the rational choice theory. It expects all players to not only be autonomous and independent from all outside forces and structures while at the same time making all decisions with their own best interests at hand. Sadly, none of the decisions that any of us face in life are ever as simple as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In reality, all of us are faced with the fact that the other prisoner is our brother, our sister or our spouse and while we all want to be free there are mitigating factors which mean we must in some cases force us to make different decisions, i.e. confessing and hoping our spouse stays mum so they can get out and care for the kids at home.
All people are affected by the social structures, norms and institutions that they take part in. These institutions, groups, structures or norms will affect the way that the individual views the world around him/her and the way that they interact with regard to the choices that he or she must make. This is not to say that the choices an individual will make are completely determined by the social groupings, norms and institutions to which the individual belongs. Rather, that it is normal for the individual to have their choices influenced by the social structures around them. This fact accounts for some of the more questionable actions that rational choice models have tended to have problems accounting for. These include actions based in such emotions as envy or greed or motivations such as altruism. All of these factors are heavily tied into the overall social structures that exist around an individual.
Agreeably, the rational choice theorists will take all of this in turn saying that all this still plays into the general overall sense of us choosing what options we prefer over others. This brings us though to another criticism of rational choice: the theorists have expanded the definitions and delineations to attempt to encompass all experience rendering their position unfalsifiable.