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Theory Development

6. Common Sense

More complex social behaviors, such as a decision to commit suicide, or the background to and events leading to an adolescent pregnancy, can be made to conform to the model of decisions based on preferences only by reconstructing them as an abstraction and attributing the reasons, preferences, and “decisions” to this abstract model. The model of the decision-maker in turn is constructed to conform to the statistical data by varying the reasons or preferences. One might conclude, for example, that girls with more limited opportunities are more likely to become pregnant because their losses in future earnings would be less than those with greater opportunities, and one would indeed find statistical patterns that confirmed that poor families are more likely to produce such pregnancies. In this case, no claim is made that teenagers in the heat of passion calculate future income probabilities. The claim is that they behave as if they did so, and that this “as if” is what explains their conduct.

This is the strategy of economic theory and rational choice approaches to theory construction. In practice, these models rely on generic knowledge about what sorts of preferences in general drive human action. The construction of such models employs a large set of known corrections, such as discounting future returns, which are used to enable these models to fit the data. At each step, of course, the model becomes farther removed from the kinds of facts that folk interpretations and common sense descriptions of these events rely on. But this kind of abstraction does provide a kind of solution to the problem of complexity.

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