How Rational is Bull Running?

Among the most prominent theories in political science is rational choice theory. It stipulates that the actions of human beings are well thought-out measures to realize underlying interests.

To this you might respond with “Duh, of course people try to realize their interests – what else is new?” A legitimate reaction. But a rational choice theorist might then tell you that this framework is so appealing because of its predictive power: Once we know a person’s interest, we can tell the actions he or she is likely to take.

I have never been a fan of this theory whose proponents, I have heard, command some of the best salaries in political science. My belief is that knowing a person’s interest is pretty hard, unless you specifically ask the individual what he or she is striving for. And the absence of really good assumptions about interest makes predicting behavior difficult.

Rational choicers would probably reply that discerning an individual’s interest is not as difficult as I make it seem – everyone wants life, health, money, comfort, and perhaps a few other things. That we can be sure of. And people will do what it takes to have a good, healthy life.

As it turns out, even that assumption is presumptuous. I just watched the documentary “Running of the Bulls.” It’s about an annual ritual in Pamplona, Spain, where especially bred fighting bulls are released from their corral and run to the bullfighting ring, where they will subsequently be killed in a bloody spectacle.

I venture that the bulls have no interest in moving to the ring. What they’d do, if given a choice, is hang out on their pasture and chew grass. But because they are in a new environment they are hyped up; and then there are the people who force them into the narrow streets of the town. So the bulls charge.

What’s so curious about this event is how irrationally Pamplona men behave if we assume that their predominant interest is life and health. In the hundreds they run ahead of the bulls, energized, as some experienced runners explain, by the danger of being trampled to death or picked up by the animals’ horns.

The bulls would be far less dangerous if the crowds weren’t there. Surrounded by a mass of humans the Pampolonans push each other. Some stumble, others fall on top of them, and very quickly they form a human pyramid that blocks the road. That’s when the frantic bulls come and try to climb right through.

The course to the fighting ring is 800 meters long, which is about half a mile. It is at the end of the course that the bulls lash out, perhaps egged on by men who poke them. With lowered horns they target human runners who have made it this far, goring them if they can.

The documentary interviews one man in his fifties who remembers the experience. He was on the side of the narrow thoroughfare when the bull came at him. He fell to the ground, his face diverted. He could feel what was happening to him but not see it. Telling himself “someone will get that beast off me,” he lay still, as if dead. The bull charged him five times. Had the man moved or tried to defend himself, he says, the incident might have turned out fatal.

This particular runner ended up in a hospital bed. He tells us that he lay there telling himself, “As soon as I am healed, I will run again.” Then he reflects on that thought and concludes, “my head was okay.”

I’d say that his head was not okay then and still isn’t. Who in his right mind exposes himself voluntarily to an annual stampede that gives him a good chance of getting gored or trampled?

As far as I am concerned bull fighting is inhumane, and the notion of honoring an animal by slowly killing it for sports is, shall we say, foreign. But what really gets to me is the movie’s message that humans deliberately place themselves in a position of losing limbs or life. And they don’t do it to defend their land, or family, or wealth, or any of the other things we in the U.S. believe to be legitimate causes. They simply do it to prove their virility.

One of the interviewees lets us know that this is his underlying interest when he says, “We would not be running if it weren’t for the danger. Without the bulls this would be nothing more than an athletic exercise.”

While I am not a rational choice theorist, I believe that humans have an interest in protecting their life and health. But this documentary shows that even that may be assuming too much.

Which makes me grateful for the film and glad I never put my faith in rational choice theory to begin with.