Satoshi Kanazawa has a blog post up at Psychology Today about rational choice theory. Voting, he claims, is irrational, because each vote, especially in national elections, counts for so little. I especially like the part where Kanazawa pooh-poohs the idea that voting might be a civic duty as magical thinking.
I've never been all that impressed with rational choice theory, even though it is not a flat out terrible idea. Rational choice theory apparently cannot explain something as common as voting, which is rather strange given that all else being equal, people who actually do vote are probably more civic-minded, more conscientious, and so forth. Apparently all the people who do vote can see some benefit the economists forgot to put in their model? As far as I am aware rational choice theory could present playing Powerball as rational as long as the jackpot was high enough, since rational choice theory is built on the idea of cost-benefit analysis. If the odds of winning are less than the expectation value of the payoff divided by the cost of the ticket then it would be rational in these terms. [What, you won't live long enough to collect? I guess that's too bad.]
That example is admittedly ridiculous, but sometimes it is helpful to take an idea to it's limits to see where it breaks down. Kanazawa hasn't yet posted his ideas on why people vote, but it seems that if rational choice theory has trouble explaining something so straightforward, it needs rethinking. I'm not really opposed to the use of empirical and mathematical methods like this, afterall, Aristotle's philosophy is solidly empirical [not empiricist]. But trying to mathematicize behavior seems to have a tendency to try to compress human behavior to fit the model, rather than expand the model to fit the behavior.
I came across a somewhat related subject recently, experimental philosophy. As a Thomist, I can't really be against this kind of thing, yet I feel that something is not quite right. I can understand the desire to use experimental data to attempt to bypass the endless debates of philosophy, but I don't think their results mean what they they think they mean. By way of example, consider this post on the Experimental Philosophy blog looking at the subject of Natural Law and Moral Objectivism. The proffered explanation for their result is that people are ultimately philosophical relativists. Possible, but I can easily think of competing explanations, such as the test subjects are less willing to think that people from wildly differing cultures have enough in common to even have a moral disagreement. The crucial question of why was not asked, because the answers would be too various for analysis. This seems to be the common weak link between rational choice theory and experimental philosophy: human intentions do not have a 1:1 relationship with human behaviors. They don't map in such a way that mathematical analysis would always be useful. Thus the attempt to measure behavior falters because we really need to know why rather than what. As long as this limitation is borne in mind, I suspect this kind of thing could be pretty useful. But if it is not, then we get the attempt to call behaviors that don't fit the model irrational.