The potentials and limitations of rational choice theory

An interview with Gary Becker


  • Catherine Herfeld Witten/Herdecke University, Germany



Gary S. Becker, philosophy and economics, economic approach, crisis, economics profession, mathematics in economics, models, rationality, behavioral economics


Gary S. Becker (Pennsylvania, 1930) is a university professor at the Departments of Economics, Sociology, and the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago, Illinois. Becker earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton University and was awarded a PhD by the University of Chicago in 1955 for a thesis on the economics of discrimination, under the supervision of Milton Friedman. After teaching at Columbia University from 1957 to 1969, he returned to the University of Chicago where he has been based ever since.

Becker’s work and research interests encompass a wide range of topics, unified by what he calls The economic approach to human behavior (Becker 1976). He considers this refined version of the neoclassical theory of consumer behavior as a method that can be applied to analyzing individual choices beyond the boundaries of traditional economics domains, including discrimination, education (human capital), crime, addiction, the family (marriage, divorce, fertility), and altruism. Becker’s path-breaking work has been recognized with numerous honors, including the John Bates Clark Medal (1967), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2007). In 1992, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior” (Nobel Prize press release).

Professor Becker was interviewed by Catherine Herfeld at his office on the Campus of the University of Chicago on December 8th, 2010. The discussion ranged over a number of issues including the consequences of the recent financial crisis for the economics profession, the role of mathematics in economic modeling and the role of modeling in economics, the significance of the rationality-principle, and the development of Becker’s ‘economic approach’ and its distinctiveness from behavioral economics.

Author Biography

Catherine Herfeld, Witten/Herdecke University, Germany

Catherine Herfeld is currently a PhD candidate at the chair of economics and philosophy at Witten/Herdecke University (Witten), and a fellow at the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science (Berlin). Her thesis is on the history and philosophical foundations of rational choice theory. At the time of this interview, she was a visiting scholar at the Department of Philosophy of Columbia University (NY).




How to Cite

Herfeld, C. (2012). The potentials and limitations of rational choice theory: An interview with Gary Becker. Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, 5(1), 73–86.