Study Notes Aspects of Behavioural Economic Theory (AQA Economics)


Last updated 20 Dec 2023

This AQA Economics Study Note covers aspects of behavioural economic theory.

Traditional economic theory assumes individuals are rational actors, making decisions to maximize their utility with perfect information and unlimited cognitive resources. However, behavioral economics challenges this assumption, highlighting the influence of bounded rationality, cognitive biases, and social factors on our economic choices. This study guide explores these concepts and their real-world implications.

1. Bounded Rationality and Self-Control: Thinking Within Limits

Humans, unlike the perfectly rational actors of traditional models, face limitations in information processing, cognitive abilities, and willpower. This bounded rationality leads to:

  • Satisficing: Accepting good enough options instead of searching for the absolute optimum, due to the costs of information gathering and decision-making.
  • Bounded self-control: Struggling to resist immediate temptations, like overspending or unhealthy food choices, despite knowing the long-term consequences.

Contextual Examples:

  • Discounting the future: We value immediate rewards more than future ones, leading to procrastination and impulsive purchases.
  • Decision fatigue: As we make more choices throughout the day, our decision-making quality declines,increasing reliance on heuristics and biases.

Economic Connection:

  • Consumer behavior: Understanding bounded rationality helps explain non-standard preferences and demand fluctuations.

2. Biases in Decision Making: Mental Shortcuts with a Price

We often rely on heuristics and rules of thumb to simplify complex decisions, but these mental shortcuts can lead to biases:

  • Anchoring: Overly relying on the first piece of information received, like a starting price point in negotiations.
  • Availability: Judging probabilities based on how easily examples come to mind, overestimating the risk of rare events like plane crashes.
  • Social norms: Conforming to the perceived behavior of others, leading to herd behavior in investment decisions or following unsustainable consumption trends.

Contextual Examples:

  • Organ donation: Framing organ donation as "choosing to donate" rather than "opting out" increases consent rates due to anchoring on the default.
  • Loss aversion: Feeling the pain of potential losses more acutely than potential gains, leading to risk aversion and suboptimal portfolio choices.

Economic Connection:

  • Market anomalies: Biases can explain deviations from efficient market assumptions, like bubbles and crashes.

3. Altruism and Fairness: Beyond Self-Interest

Economic models often focus on self-interest, but humans exhibit altruism and a sense of fairness:

  • Altruism: Acting in the interests of others, even at a cost to oneself, demonstrated by charitable donations and volunteering.
  • Fairness: Concern for equitable outcomes and reciprocity, influencing bargaining decisions and tax preferences.

Contextual Examples:

  • Taxation: Willingness to pay higher taxes if perceived as fair and used for societal benefit.
  • Gift-giving: Spending more on gifts for those who reciprocate generously, reflecting concern for fairness in social interactions.

Economic Connection:

  • Behavioral public finance: Understanding preferences for fairness and altruism informs policy design for taxation, social welfare programs, and resource allocation.

Conclusion: Towards a More Nuanced View of Economic Behaviour

By acknowledging the limitations of traditional rationality and incorporating insights from behavioral economics, we gain a richer understanding of how individuals make economic decisions. This knowledge can inform policy design, nudge individuals towards better choices, and create a more efficient and equitable economic environment.


  • Bounded rationality: The limited information processing, cognitive abilities, and willpower that constrain rational decision-making.
  • Satisficing: Choosing an acceptable option that meets minimum criteria instead of searching for the absolute optimum.
  • Bounded self-control: The difficulty in resisting immediate temptations despite knowing the long-term consequences.
  • Heuristics: Mental shortcuts and rules of thumb used to simplify complex decisions.
  • Anchoring: Excessive reliance on the first piece of information received, biasing subsequent judgments.
  • Availability: Judging probabilities based on how easily examples come to mind, leading to inaccurate assessments of risk.
  • Social norms: Implicit rules and expectations governing behavior within a group, influencing individual choices.
  • Altruism: Acting in the interests of others, even at a cost to oneself.
  • Fairness: Concern for equitable outcomes and reciprocity in social interactions and economic decisions.
  • Behavioural public finance: A branch of economics that applies insights from behavioral economics to understand and design public policies.

This study guide provides a structured overview of key concepts in behavioural economics, equipping students with a deeper understanding of human decision-making and its economic implications.

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