In the Office’s sixth episode of season 7, Dunder Mifflin’s “accountant extraordinaire” Oscar Martinez dresses up as the “rational consumer” for the office’s Halloween costume contest. His character is inspired by the contest’s prize, a booklet worth over $40,000 in coupons to many of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s finest establishments. Though the rest of the employees come to work dressed in creative and sometimes head turning (Gabe as Lady Gaga) costumes they have obviously put a lot of thought into, Oscar comes dressed in jeans, a collared shirt and a cardigan as a sign that the booklet should be of no interest to anyone who is a rational consumer.
If you’re a fan of the Office you know that Oscar’s costume ends up being voted the best by the rest of the office. This of course is due in large part to the fact no one understands his costume and many of the employees vote for him thinking they are voting for someone who has no chance of beating them.
Oscar, and everyone else, is baffled by his surprise victory but that’s not the point of this article, though making Office references is a great use of time. Instead, I think I should explain what the rational consumer actually is according to microeconomic theory rather than Oscar’s loose interpretation or people’s intuition.
The rational consumer is an extension of the rational man, or homo economicus, which is the economic concept of a perfectly rational and acutely self-interested agent who is capable of optimally pursuing his interests and ends and making rational decisions. The definition seems unnecessarily ambiguous and a full explanation of who homo economicus is would take much more than 650 words so I will only focus on the decision making aspect of the rational man.
When the rational woman (any gender can be rational afterall) makes a decision, she is doing so based on preferences that are complete and transitive. Completeness meaning that she has a preference between all of her options such that she can create a relative ranking between every possible option available to her. Transitivity meaning that if she prefers salmon to catfish and catfish to cod, she prefers salmon to cod.
Her decision is also based on the important rule that more is always better, the non-satiation theory of goods. If homo economicus has a choice between some of a good and more of that good, he will always choose more of that good. So yes, if offered the choice between 1 donut and 12 donuts, the rational human will always choose 12 even if having 12 donuts is absurd (no one needs 12 donuts…right?).
Every decision made by the rational man or woman is made with a complete list of options in mind and with perfect knowledge of each option. An additional caveat is that if there are probabilities involved with decisions, the rational human is capable of discerning these probabilities perfectly.
The obvious impossibility of the requirements of being rational are striking and it poses the question whether we can ever be rational. The short answer is yes, it definitely is possible. However, we are often not, and having knowledge of what rational decision making actually is can lead you to spot the erroneous misuses of the word by your friends, peers, and figures in popular culture.
Speaking of popular culture, is Oscar’s interpretation of the rational consumer, an offshoot of the rational human, accurate according to economic theory? Unfortunately, at my own peril, I have to say no. Any rational consumer would understand that having a book full of coupons is better than not having a book full of coupons because more is always better! Even if there is only one coupon in that entire book that is of any use to you, having the coupon book is better than having nothing.
So by implying that a rational consumer has no need for a book of coupons, Oscar is ironically being quite irrational.