Calling references: Rational or irrational?

Over the past cou­ple of decades, I’ve sent out a few hun­dred re­sumes (maybe, I don’t know, 300 or 400--my spread­sheet for 2013-2015 lists 145 ap­pli­ca­tions). Out of those I’ve got­ten at most two dozen in­ter­views and a dozen job offers.

Through­out that time I’ve main­tained a list of refer­ences on my re­sume. The rest of the re­sume is, to my mind, not very in­for­ma­tive. The list of job ti­tles and de­grees says lit­tle about how com­pe­tent I was.

Now and then, I check with one of my refer­ences to see if any­one called them. I checked again yes­ter­day with the sec­ond refer­ence on my list. The an­swer was the same: Nope. No one has ever, as far as I can re­call, called any of my refer­ences. Not the peo­ple who in­ter­viewed me; not the peo­ple who offered me jobs.

When the US gov­ern­ment did a back­ground check on me, they asked me for a list of refer­ences to con­tact. My un­cer­tain rec­ol­lec­tion is that they ig­nored it and in­ter­viewed my neigh­bors and other con­tacts in­stead, as if what I had given them was a list of peo­ple not to bother con­tact­ing be­cause they’d only say good things about me.

Is this ra­tio­nal or ir­ra­tional? Why does ev­ery em­ployer ask for a list of refer­ences, then not call them?