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Rational Choice Theory



Assume a person has certain preferences over various possible outcomes of a situation in which she finds herself, and that one of the things determining which possible outcome will actually occur is a choice she is about to make. To what principles must her choice conform, in order for her choice to be a rational one? This question is the fundamental question of rational choice theory, and this course will examine the main concepts and principles normally used to answer it. The first part of the course will be devoted to introducing some well-known (classical) theorists in this rational tradition. We will discuss the ideas of scholars like Kenneth Arrow, Duncan Black, Mancur Olson, and Elinor Ostrom. The second part of the course will be devoted to game theory, which is the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between rational decision-makers. Originally, it addressed situations in which one person's gains result in losses for the other participants. Today, game theory applies to a wide range of behavioral relations, and is now a term describing the science of logical decision making in humans, animals, and computers. The third and final part of the course will be devoted to some current applications of not only these rational choice thinkers but also of these game theoretical models in international relations and comparative politics.

Course objectives

Objective 1: To introduce key concepts of rational choice theory.
Objective 2: To give an overview of the ideas of classical and contemporary scholars working in this tradition.
Objective 3: To show the how rational choice is used in current research.

Mode of instruction

Plenary lectures centered around the literature and student questions.

Course Load

  • Attending lectures: 4h x 7 weeks = 28h

  • Readings for the course: 6h x 7 weeks = 42h

Assessment method

Final exam with multiple choice and open ended questions.

The time and location of inspection and debriefing of the exam will be announced via Blackboard no later than the publication of the grades

Reading list

Schepsle, Kenneth A. 2010. Analyzing Politics. Rationality, Behavior, and Institutions. London: W.W. Norton & Co.


See general information on Tab 'Year 2'.

Timetable courses and exams