Aladdin + rational choice theory

I thought we’d start off with one of the more basic, and useless, contemporary sociological theories: rational choice theory. This is basically economics. Humans engage in actions that will maximize profit – the most reward for the lowest cost. According to rational choice theory [RCT], humans are rational actors and will always make rational choices (and by rational, they mean profit-maximizing). Pretty easy, right? Hopefully you’ll pick up on some of the obvious flaws to the theory as we go along.

In Disney’s Aladdin, the main character is a thief because he can successfully avoid being captured and imprisoned while still getting food and other necessities without paying for them. Reward = free food; cost = risk of being caught; profit = large enough to make Aladdin rationally decide that stealing is worth it. It’s in his best interest to do so.

Jasmine doesn’t want to get married (or, more specifically, to be obligated to get married). Why? Well, everyone has preferences. Jasmine prefers not to get married. Here’s a major flaw of RCT: it can’t, and doesn’t attempt to, explain why people want certain things; it just says that we all have preferences, and we seek to maximize those preferences. So Jasmine runs away from the palace because it helps her avoid being married off.

Jafar is pretty straightforward. He wants power. Selfish people are so easy to explain with RCT. (And, anyway, according to RCT we’re all self-interested.)

Here’s a brief plot summary, with 3 points I want to analyze: Aladdin steals some bread. Jasmine runs away from the palace to avoid marriage. Aladdin helps Jasmine in the market place. He is captured by the guards and imprisoned. Jafar (in disguise) gets Aladdin to steal the magic lamp. Genie grants Aladdin 3 wishes. Aladdin promises to use his third wish to free Genie from an eternity of servitude. Aladdin becomes Prince Ali and woos Jasmine on a magic carpet ride. The guards try to drown Aladdin but Genie saves him. Aladdin exposes Jafar’s power-hungry motives. Jasmine and Aladdin plan to marry. Jafar steals the magic lamp and becomes Genie’s new master. He wishes to be sultan, then sorcerer, then genie, after which he is imprisoned in his own lamp. Aladdin uses his third wish to free Genie. The sultan changes the law so Jasmine and Aladdin can marry.

1. After Aladdin and Abu steal a loaf of bread and sit down to enjoy it, they see some little kids rooting through the trash for food. Aladdin generously hands over his half of the loaf. RCT says this is not real generosity; altruism does not exist (except for saints and fools, who are arguably not rational actors), which means that Aladdin is simply trying to appear noble because he prefers to be seen as such. Notice that Abu is reluctant to hand his bread over.

2. When Aladdin is thrown into the ocean by the guards, Genie frantically tries to get Aladdin to wish to be saved. Why? Is it because he cares about Aladdin as a friend, or because Aladdin has promised to free Genie with the third wish? Maybe both. Aladdin is a good master to Genie, which makes Genie want to keep him around. Perhaps for Genie the only thing better than having Aladdin as a master is being free. And by forcing Aladdin to use his second wish to avoid drowning, Genie hopes to guarantee his own sooner-than-later release from servitude. Of course, in the real world, we’d attribute Genie’s action to the bond he and Aladdin have formed, but RCT demands that we explain actions in terms of profit. Does Genie profit by saving Aladdin? He certainly avoids years of waiting in his lamp at the bottom of the ocean before being discovered by a new master.

3. RCT is going to have a tough time satisfactorily explaining why Aladdin ends up freeing Genie with his third wish. It looks as though Aladdin gives up his chance to spend a happy life with Jasmine just to keep his promise to Genie. Sure, Aladdin’s a good guy, but what rational sense does that make? Here’s what RCT would say: Aladdin prefers keeping his word more than he prefers being happily married to the woman he loves. Or maybe Aladdin prefers appearing to be a good guy. Whatever it is, Aladdin is acting on his preferences.

In that last example, did you see the circular logic? Aladdin has preferences, and he acts to maximize them. We can see what his preferences are by examining his actions. So preferences motivate actions, and actions reveal preferences. If I stand outside in the rain, RCT says it must be in my self-interest to do so. If I come inside from the rain, RCT says it must be in my self-interest to do so. Which is my preference – standing outside or coming inside? RCT can only discern my preference by looking at my action, but then it explains my action by saying I was acting on my preference. Really, guys. This is a little ridiculous. Right?

Anyway, I want to apologize. This has turned out to be a little bit more of an undertaking than I imagined. It will take me a while to get the hang of what I’m doing with the sociological theory/movie analysis thing. I know this post was rambling and unorganized, but quite honestly I’ve had a long day and I don’t feel like sitting down to edit it. At least RCT can explain that easily!


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Disclaimer: this post talks about pregnancy and stuff. It could be awkward. I might even use the word “ovaries” – I haven’t quite decided yet. If that’s weird for you, just come back another day.

When a couple announces they’re expecting a baby, it’s considered bad form to ask if this was a planned pregnancy. But I always wonder. Don’t you? Sometimes they’ll say something, like “We’d been hoping for a baby” or “This came as a bit of a surprise” or even “This was not supposed to happen.” If they don’t bring it up at all, I have to deal with my curiosity, particularly if the couple already has a kid (or several) and the new baby will be pretty close in age to the other kids.

Aaaaaand I just realized this may make it sound like I’m leading up to my own announcement. NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. I was going to talk about the Bwun and jr being close together, ok?

Here’s what happened. One day, when the Bwun was about 8 months old, the Romgi and I were talking as we drove up to Salt Lake, and he told me that he really loves my name. So much that he’d like to have a daughter and name her after me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more flattered in my life. (You guys are welcome to try topping that, though. I like being flattered.) Of course, I said we’d have to call her something else to avoid confusion. The Romgi jokingly (?) suggested calling her Junior. Well, we did agree on a name like “Junior,” since you can’t really go around calling your daughter Junior. Seriously.

Anyway, I hadn’t even thought about having another kid yet (remember, the Bwun was only 8 months old!), but the idea of having a daughter was suddenly very appealing, especially since the Romgi said something to the effect of “I’m fine with having another baby whenever.” Like I said, a baby girl sounded so exciting. I think I tried to outwardly resist the idea of having another baby because I was afraid people would wonder about my sanity. (And you do, don’t you?) So I wanted to make it seem like it was all the Romgi’s idea. In all fairness to him, he expected another long(ish) wait between me wanting a baby and actually being pregnant. In such a timeline, I’d be due sometime this summer. And in all fairness to me, I never actually bothered to do simple addition and figure out that a new baby and the Bwun could be as close together as 18 months.

Even if I had thought about it, though, 18 months would have seemed so grown up. The Bwun wasn’t even walking at the time, and I knew he would change a lot in the coming months. As it turned out, the Bwun was 14 months old when I found out I was pregnant, and he would have been 21 months old when jr was born, except she had an early arrival.

So. 20 months apart. What has it been like? Not nearly as bad as I expected. I was right about everyone thinking I was crazy for having kids so close together, and a lot of people told me it would be impossibly difficult. At 20 months old, the Bwun was speaking in two-word sentences like “Beebee Joo” and later “June poop.” When he hit two years, he used 4-5 words together and could count to 10. And now he talks almost nonstop.

Yes, he’s come a long way developmentally in the past six months – I can see how, in some ways, spacing our kids farther apart might have been easier. But this has worked out pretty well for us. I started school again right around the time jr began sleeping through the night, and I think if we had planned on having her closer to when the Bwun turned 2, I wouldn’t have been willing to do classes on campus. Both my kids are good-natured, mellow, and mind-blowingly charming, so having them close together has been comparatively easy. I definitely won’t be having another baby for several years, if ever (and you can just go ahead and assume that if I make any sort of announcement sooner than that, it’s one of those “This was not supposed to happen” times), but I love things the way they are.

P.S. I wrote this post in my head at 4am when I couldn’t sleep. It sounded pretty awesome then – which means I can’t vouch for how it actually turns out. Also, I wasn’t ever going to say “ovaries,” but it seemed like a fun introduction. Again, I came up with this in the middle of the night…