What is the Social Choice Theory?

M. McGee
M. McGee
Man climbing a rope
Man climbing a rope

Social choice theory is a series of methods used to create a perfectly average individual to see how the average person would react in a situation. The basic premise of social choice theory is that a person will do whatever she can to improve her situation and avoid circumstances that will lessen her situation. To determine how an individual will react, the group studied is broken down into prime motivations. The average motivations among everyone in the group are collected and attached to a single aggregate individual. This hypothetical individual is the basis of the testing.

In actuality, the structure of social choice theory goes far beyond ‘take good and leave bad.’ Many aspects of human decision making are influenced by complex factors that the choice maker doesn’t even recognize. Some of these factors are totally arbitrary, such as choosing one car over another because the chooser prefers the chosen car’s display color. It doesn’t matter to the chooser that another car may be available in the same shade, as the choice is already set in her mind.

Other decisions are less arbitrary, but no less mysterious to a test maker. For example, a person may choose one object over another simply because it reminds him of someone important in his life. This does not give one object superiority to another in any situation other than the chooser’s. In this case, the chooser may not even be aware of why the object appeals to him.

The other common choice difficulty that social choice theory attempts to address is risk. Even though a person may view one choice as poor, another may see opportunity within it. The difference between the two assessments is the choice’s risk factor. Some people are willing to take larger risks to accomplish larger goals than others. In traditional testing, this factor is a difficult one to pin down.

To combat these extraneous decisions, social choice theory dictates the construction of an aggregate personality. A group of people are brought together and poled for answers to certain questions. These answers may contain the same strange and unpredictable decisions common in any form of questioning, but these artifact answers have little impact on the overall process.

Social choice theory researchers take these answers and combine them into a single hypothetical being. This person is the combination of all of the people that were examined. In a very simple example, if 10 people were asked to choose which of two cars they liked and nine picked one and one picked the other because they liked the color, then the aggregate person would have a 90% chance of picking the first car and a 10% chance for the second. This data is then used in simulations to determine how often certain choices would be made.

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Discussion Comments


@AnswerMan, I sometimes think a lot of people will put down an answer that will not skew the overall results, so the most common answers would be somewhere in the middle. The article suggests that an imaginary "average person", however, isn't necessarily going to follow the path of least resistance. A question about loyalty to one's country, for instance, anticipates a stronger response than a question about laundry soap. A lot of test takers may be indifferent to the soap they use, but they probably have strong opinions about their country, or religion or other hot button issues. The aggregate average test taker under the social choice theory isn't necessarily toeing the company line.


I can see this social choice theory being useful when test takers are ask to rate items from 1 to 10, or go from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree" with degrees along the way. It would nice to assume an imaginary average test taker would choose nothing but 5s or select "no strong opinion" every time, but that isn't necessarily the case. Some questions might skew towards a more negative or positive response, so the people creating and scoring the test need to adjust for natural fluctuations.

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