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Study Notes Difference between bounded rationality and bounded self-control (AQA)


Last updated 10 Sept 2023

Bounded rationality refers to the idea that people make decisions within the limits of their cognitive abilities. In other words, they have limited information and resources to consider all the available options. Bounded self-control, on the other hand, refers to the idea that people have limited willpower when making decisions. This means that people can have a hard time resisting temptations or delaying gratification. For example, someone might know that it's not a good idea to eat a piece of cake, but they eat it anyway because they don't have the willpower to resist.

In economics and behavioral science, two important concepts—bounded rationality and bounded self-control—play a significant role in understanding human decision-making. While both acknowledge limitations in human decision processes, they focus on different aspects of decision-making. Let's explore the key differences between bounded rationality and bounded self-control with real-world examples.

Bounded Rationality:

  • Definition: Bounded rationality refers to the idea that individuals have cognitive limitations that restrict their ability to process and analyze all available information when making decisions.

Key Characteristics of Bounded Rationality:

  1. Information Constraints: Bounded rationality recognizes that individuals cannot gather and process all available information due to limitations in time, cognitive resources, and information overload.
  2. Satisficing: People often use a satisficing approach, where they aim to find a satisfactory solution rather than the optimal one. They make decisions that are "good enough" based on the information they have, rather than exhaustively analyzing all possibilities.
  3. Heuristics: Individuals rely on heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to simplify complex decision-making. Heuristics can lead to biases and errors but help make decisions quickly.

Real-World Example of Bounded Rationality: Consider a student choosing a college. Due to information constraints (limited time and resources), they may not thoroughly research every possible option. Instead, they may use heuristics like selecting colleges based on proximity or reputation, which simplifies the decision-making process.

Bounded Self-Control:

  • Definition: Bounded self-control, also known as limited willpower or self-control failure, refers to the idea that individuals have limitations in their ability to resist immediate gratification and make decisions that align with their long-term goals.

Key Characteristics of Bounded Self-Control:

  1. Temporal Discounting: People often discount the value of future rewards in favor of immediate rewards. They prioritize short-term pleasure over long-term benefits.
  2. Impulsivity: Bounded self-control recognizes that individuals may give in to impulsive behaviors, such as overspending, overeating, or procrastination, even when they know these actions conflict with their long-term interests.
  3. Need for Self-Regulation: Individuals need to actively self-regulate their behavior to overcome self-control limitations. This may involve setting goals, using strategies like pre-commitment, or seeking external support.

Real-World Example of Bounded Self-Control: Consider someone trying to save money. Despite the knowledge that saving is essential for long-term financial stability, they may give in to impulsive spending on unnecessary items due to their limited self-control. This behavior reflects the concept of bounded self-control.

Key Differences:

  1. Focus:
    • Bounded rationality focuses on limitations in information processing and decision-making.
    • Bounded self-control focuses on limitations in resisting immediate gratification and maintaining self-discipline.
  2. Decision-Making Aspect:
    • Bounded rationality relates to how individuals make choices when faced with limited information and cognitive resources.
    • Bounded self-control relates to how individuals make decisions that may contradict their long-term goals due to impulsivity and self-control failures.
  3. Examples:
    • Bounded rationality is exemplified by heuristic-based decision-making and satisficing, such as choosing a college based on limited research.
    • Bounded self-control is exemplified by impulsive actions that go against long-term goals, such as overspending despite wanting to save money.


Understanding the distinctions between bounded rationality and bounded self-control is essential for comprehending human behavior and decision-making in various contexts. While bounded rationality relates to information processing limitations, bounded self-control relates to challenges in resisting immediate gratification and maintaining self-discipline over time. Both concepts shed light on the complexities of decision-making in real-life situations.

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