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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2 Comments on “Aladdin + rational choice theory”

  1. KHL says:

    I like it! And this reminds me of why I got so sick of taking psychology classes. I kept thinking, “what a dumb theory!”

  2. lee says:

    Aww well, I thought I had formulated an (approximately) original theory when I proposed RCT as a form of circular logic. My version: RCT proposes a theory of human nature where everyone is trying to maximize utility (however this is measured). Now, what determines this drive to maximization of utility? Answer: human nature!
    In another form: human nature is x; and x is human nature. At the cutting edge of the dismal science such nonsense as this forms the basis of nobel prize awards.


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