What Does it Mean to Be Rational?

One of the most basic assumptions that underlies economic analysis is that people are rational. Given a set of possible choices, an individual in an economic model always chooses the one they think will give them the largest net benefit. This assumption has come under attack by many within the profession as well as by outsiders.

Some of these criticisms are easy to reject. For example, it is common for non-economists to make the jump from rationality to selfishness and denounce economics for assuming all humans only care about themselves. Similar criticisms point to economics for being too materialistic when real people actually value intangible goods as well. Neither of these arguments hits the mark. When an economist talks of rationality, they mean it in the broadest possible way. If donating to charity or giving gifts or going to poor countries to build houses are important for you, economics does not say you are wrong to choose those things. Morality or duty can have just as powerful an impact on your choices as material desires. Economics makes no distinction between these categories. You choose what you prefer. The reason you prefer it is irrelevant for an economist.

More thoughtful criticisms argue that even after defining preferences correctly, people sometimes make decisions that actively work against their own interests. The study of these kinds of issues with decision-making  has come to be called “behavioral economics.” One of the most prominent behavioral economists, Richard Thaler, likes to use the example of the Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund. Despite its NASDAQ ticker CUBA, the fund has little to do with the country Cuba. Nevertheless, when Obama announced an easing of Cuban trade restrictions in 2014, the stock price increased 70%. A more recent example occurred when investors swarmed to Nintendo stock after the release of Pokemon Go before realizing that Nintendo doesn’t even make the game.

But do these examples show that people are irrational? I don’t think so. There needs to be a distinction between being rational and being right. Making mistakes doesn’t mean that your original goal wasn’t to maximize your own utility, it just means that the path you chose was not the best way to accomplish that goal. To quote Ludwig von Mises, “human action is necessarily always rational” because “the ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires” (Human Action, p. 18). He gives the example of doctors 100 years ago trying to treat cancer. Although the methods used at that time may appear irrational by modern standards, those methods were what the doctors considered to be the best given the knowledge available at the time. Mises even applies the same logic to emotional actions. Rather than call emotionally charged actions irrational, Mises instead chooses to argue that “emotions disarrange valuations”  (p. 16). Again, an economist cannot differentiate between the reasons an individual chooses to act. Anger is as justifiable as deliberate calculation.

That is not to say that the behavioralists don’t have a point. They just chose the wrong word. People are not irrational. They just happen to be wrong quite often. The confusion is understandable, however, because rationality itself is not well defined. Under my definition, rationality only requires that agents make the best decision possible given their current knowledge. Often economic models go a step further and make specific (and sometimes very strong) assumptions about what that knowledge should include. Even in models with uncertainty, people are usually expected to know the probabilities of events occurring. In reality, people often face not only unknown events, but unknowable events that could never be predicted beforehand. In such a world, there is no reason to expect that even the most intelligent rational agent could make a decision that appears rational in a framework with complete knowledge.

Roman Frydman describes this point nicely

After uncovering massive evidence that contemporary economics’ standard of rationality fails to capture adequately how individuals actually make decisions, the only sensible conclusion to draw was that this standard was utterly wrong. Instead, behavioral economists concluded that individuals are less than fully rational or are irrational
Rethinking Expectations: The Way Forward For Macroeconomics, p. 148-149

Don’t throw out rationality. Throw out the strong knowledge assumptions. Perhaps the worst of these is the assumption of “rational expectations” in macroeconomics. I will have a post soon arguing that they are not really rational at all.

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