I was singing the praises of rational choice theory to a friend – telling him it can help people understand cause-effect relationships in the world and navigate better towards their goals, rather than just getting bitter – when he posed an objection.  Sure, he granted, most people are acting to get what they want and not just to torment you for its own sake, but what about those few people who may be genuinely evil, and truly revel in your misery?  How can rational choice account for this?  Don’t they destroy this worldview?  Isn’t it impossible to understand what they’re aiming at and negotiate to avoid pain?

I asked for a specific example.  He mentioned a friend of his who gets angry at people and immediately assumes evil motives.  When someone says they’ll show up at 10 and comes at 10:30, she thinks it’s because they’re simply a terrible person, and there’s no rationality behind their selfish tardiness, therefore there’s nothing she can do to cope with or avoid being the victim of it.  It’s a very helpless, disempowering way to look at things.  It’s also patently false.

Even if we grant that the person is pure evil, hell bent on her discomfort, this theory has provided no explanatory power for the particular actions taken.  Why didn’t the person just key her car or slash her tires if inconveniencing her was the goal?  Why did they show up 30 minutes late, instead of 60, or not at all?  What accounts for the particular choices made?  Clearly, some kind of calculation was involved.  If being a jerk was the goal, the person must have reasoned that showing up 30 minutes late was the least costly way to exact the most jerkiness.  In other words, they looked at costs and benefits, and made a rational choice given their preferences.

Once you strip away the emotion and realize that, evil or not, people still make rational choices about what means to employ in seeking their ends, it tends to melt away the anger and helplessness a bit.  If the person was rational enough to choose whether to be late and by how much, does it seem probable they did it just to tick you off?  Not in most cases.  Far more likely, they had a phone call, or forgot to get gas ahead of time, failed to account for traffic, or any number of other things, and they determined sacrificing 30 minutes was the least bad solution.  But even if they wanted to cause trouble, knowing they have a cost/benefit calculation just like you do can help you see possible work-arounds.  How might you change their incentives to improve the chances of punctuality?  The onus is on you to accept their preferences, whether you like them or not, and learn to get what you want anyway.

It’s much easier emotionally to just call them evil and irrational and propagate the myth of your own helplessness.  It might feel good in the moment, but it’s a terrible way to reach your goals, and it fails to explain the real world.  In fact, the vindictiveness that can result is likely to make them truly angry with you, whether they were at first or not, and want to exact revenge, perpetuating the conflict.

Worry less about the morality of others or their motives, and put more focus on what caused them to choose what they did and how you might alter what they view as in their best interest.  You’ll enjoy life more, and you might find people around you aren’t as bad as you think.