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Bounded Rationality

· 3 min read

Bounded rationality is a concept in economics and decision theory that acknowledges the limitations of decision makers in terms of the information they have, their cognitive capabilities, and the finite time they have to make decisions. The term was coined by Herbert A. Simon, an economist and psychologist who noted that while traditional models of decision-making in economics and other fields assumed that individuals acted rationally to maximize their utility, real human behavior often deviates from this ideal due to practical constraints.

Background and Assumptions

Traditional economic theories posited that agents have access to all relevant information, can process this information flawlessly, and will thus always make decisions that maximize their utility. However, Simon argued that these assumptions were unrealistic and did not reflect actual human behavior. Instead, he proposed that decision-makers operate within the confines of what they actually know, which is never complete, and their mental capacity to evaluate and act on that knowledge.

Key Elements

  • Informational Limits: Individuals often make decisions with only partial information about the choices and their potential outcomes.
  • Cognitive Constraints: Human cognitive processing power is limited; people cannot calculate every possible outcome but must simplify the decision-making process.
  • Time Constraints: Decisions often need to be made within certain timeframes, limiting the ability to evaluate every possible option.


Bounded rationality has profound implications for understanding economic behavior, influencing everything from individual consumer choices to the strategic decisions of large corporations and even the design of public policy. It suggests that decision-makers resort to rule-of-thumb strategies, or heuristics, which do not guarantee optimal solutions but are satisfactory within the limits of what the decision-makers know and can process. This can lead to phenomena like satisficing, where an individual seeks a solution or decision that is 'good enough' rather than the best possible choice.


  • Consumer Choice: A consumer might choose a product not because it is the best possible choice but because it is readily available and good enough for their needs, due to limitations in time for research and comparison.
  • Business Strategy: A company might opt for a strategy that is less risky and more predictable, rather than a potentially more profitable one that would require more complex analysis and is beyond the firm's ability to analyze fully.

Bounded rationality is a critical concept for understanding decision-making processes in a realistic setting, highlighting the gap between ideal rationality and the practical limitations faced by individuals and organizations.