Through referencing examples of rational behavior, this article defines the goal-driven behavior that is determined by our set preferences and priorities.


Have you ever been accused of being irrational? Perhaps a friend or coworker felt you were being illogical or unreasonable. Irrational behavior is usually undesirable, carrying a negative connotation. Instead of acting irrational, we tend to want to behave in ways that are predictable, sensible, and logical. This type of behavior is known as rational behavior.

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To behave rationally, we make decisions and act in ways that best achieve our needs. In this way, rational behavior is goal oriented. Rational behavior occurs when we are pursuing goals in accordance with our set preferences and priorities. When a person does not behave in accordance with their preferences and priorities, their behavior is irrational. Because people often shift and change their preferences and priorities, their behavior is sometimes seen as irrational.

Consider a student who lives in poverty, but who continually receives high marks for academic performance. Imagine they often study for hours in the evening. One day, they learn of an opportunity to obtain a scholarship to further their education. The student’s parents encourage them to apply for a scholarship. We would likely predict that they would continue to get good grades, apply for the scholarship, meet the appropriate deadlines, and follow the instructions for application. In this way, their predictable and sensible behavior would seem logical and rational.

Consider the student though, who after years of high marks for academic performance, begins failing several classes. Sometimes, the student doesn’t even attend class. When the student is given the opportunity to apply for a scholarship, they ignore the opportunity and do not apply. The student misses the deadline for application and no longer spends time studying or reading. Their parents become confused because the student’s behavior is not in alignment with past performance or current known financial needs. The parents therefore conclude that the student is behaving irrationally.

Perhaps the student has decided they do not want to further their education. Perhaps the student is overwhelmed with living a life of poverty. Or, maybe the student has become distracted by a romantic relationship and now has a new set of priorities. However, as long as the parents are unaware of the student’s shifting priorities and preferences, the student’s behavior is likely to be seen by the parents as irrational. Again, whether behavior is labeled as rational vs. irrational is determined by the predictability or sensibility of the behavior.

Rational Choice Theory

The idea of rational behavior is rooted in many different areas of study including economics, sociology and psychology. Economic theories typically assume that individuals are rational beings, working to obtain that which is most beneficial to themselves. For instance, the process of trade and negotiation involves the concept of rational behavior. In sociology, as interactions between people are examined, the assumption of rational behavior is often used as well. For example, the creation of norms of in a society are built on the assumption of rational behavior. In psychology, one way that rational behavior might be used is to better understand a person’s motivation towards a specific goal.

The Root of Rational Behavior

Our behavior, preferences and priorities are determined by many things. For instance, our systems of belief, the culture or environment that surrounds us, and our physical needs and emotional desires are just a few to consider. As you are probably well aware, there are many factors that influence and define behavior. From nature (biological forces) to nurture (environmental forces), behavior tends to be a product of multiple influences. One factor that works to determine a person’s behavior is the environment or society that surrounds them. For instance, setting various norms for behavior, society defines which behavior is viewed as favorable, or rational.

Imagine for a moment this example of rational behavior. A student, Jim, is doing his homework when he begins to feel hungry. He considers taking a break from his assignment and going to the kitchen for a snack. He glances at the clock and decide to allow himself a ten minute break from his homework. Jim’s behavior (getting a snack, for example) is focused on a goal in accordance with his set preferences and priorities. It is important to Jim to finish his homework (because he plans to return to the assignment after ten minutes). Also, it is important to Jim to get a snack and satisfy his hunger. Note that Jim’s hunger is a biological need, or priority.

Principles of Rational Behavior

Rational behavior is a result of three basic principles. These principles must be present if rational behavior is to occur.

Logical Thinking – clearly moving from one related thought to another

Preferences and Priorities_ – set(s) of belief which define what is most important to the individual

Freedom of Choice_ – individuals must have the freedom to make decisions to meet their needs


Rational behavior is goal driven, set to fulfill our set preferences and priorities. In sociology, the concept of rational behavior helps lay the foundation for understanding human interaction and what becomes defined as appropriate or inappropriate behavior. In psychology, rational behavior helps us understand goal setting and motivation. In addition, rational behavior provides a basis for economic theories, such as trade and negotiation. Rational behavior is the product of many things including nature (our environment) and nurture (our biological forces), and is a result of the three principals: logical thinking, preferences and priorities and freedom of choice.