Bounded Rationality and “Satisficers”

Why is “vision” difficult to see and implement?
Why is it hard to think outside the box?
Why does “new and improved” tend to be less than advertised?
Why does decision making in the church sometimes feel like muddle?
How do you become more “creative”?

“Bounded rationality” is the cognitive theory that when individuals (or groups) make decisions, their rationality is:

  • limited by the available information
  • limited by the difficulty of the problem or lack of apparent solutions
  • limited by the cognitive limitations of their minds
  • limited by the time available to make the decision

The result is what cognitive-theorists call “satisficing.”  (Satisfaction + Sacrificing). Limited by information, difficulty, solutions, their own mindsets, and time, decision-makers seek a satisfactory solution rather than an optimal one. (“Settling,” “caving,” “compromised,” might be synonyms, though Jesus might have said “the blind leading the blind.”)

[The theory helped win Herbert A. Simon a Nobel prize. He was a 20th Century economist, political scientist, psychologist, and mathematician. “Satisficing” is seen throughout scripture, and is probably what got Jesus killed.]

At Pentecost, -the birth of the Church, the Holy Spirit blew the disciples out of their upper room and into the street. Each was set ablaze with boldness and a new way of speaking that made sense –not to the Pharisees, but to the crowds who had come in from different regions to celebrate (prophetically) the post-Passover harvest festival.

Ever notice how “being satisfied” with the way things are often leaves you feeling un-satisfied?  In my experience, the work of the Holy Spirit often begins with a gnawing feeling as you sit in your upper-room wondering what to do. Nay-sayers often have this gnawing feeling too, btw. They just can’t see outside the box, or upper-room.


One of the best gifts I was ever given by a church was permission to try something new and different. After a long presentation and challenging questions from church elders, the Senior Pastor called for the vote with this preface, “Let’s keep in mind that we hired Neil to be a creative leader.” It was that church where I first experimented with the Rotation Model for Sunday School and computers in Christian education. I didn’t come there with those ideas in mind, rather, others created an atmosphere where we could dream and try. The leaders gave us the permission, time and resources to try new things, and they comforted the naysayers.

don’t recommend ignoring the nay-sayers. They often they have important information, and the last thing you want is to be their nay-sayer. But you can’t be afraid of them either. The initial chirping of nay-sayers is rarely about the rightness or wrongness of an idea. It’s usually about their fears…

  • Fear of looking stupid.
  • Fear of other people’s success.
  • Fear of losing control.
  • Fear of the unfamiliar.
  • Fear that change is criticism of what they were doing.
  • Fear you will do away with something they are comfortable with.
  • Fear that change will require their commitment.
  • Fear that your success will overshadow something they are doing.
  • And last but not least, Fear you will offend a big donor or rouse a troublemaker.



Just remember, not everything “new” is improved.


Here are those “limitations” again, counter-imagined:

  • Actively seek new information*
  • Be like Joshua and Caleb who were unafraid of the giants
  • Open the discussion to new voices and divergent thinking
  • Give yourself and others time to ponder and experiment

The hardest thing you will ever be called on to change is yourself. And that’s the note I’d like to leave this brief article with. How are you bound?

<>< Neil MacQueen

*On the subject of creativity
I write Sunday School lessons for a living, and like to think most are rather different and creative. I’m sometimes asked, “Where do you come up with this stuff?” And the answer, in part, is that I do a lot of reading and wool-gathering. (Creativity really is 99% perspiration.) I read a lot about the passage, look for “hooks” in the story, and also look at what others have done (often creativity begins with someone else’s insight). But then you have to take time with them. Developing creative ideas is like the proverbial “rabbit hole” you dive down. You’re never quite sure where they will lead. One of my greatest resources is letting ideas percolate in my mind for several days before beginning to write the lesson. Being forced to write it for others is a continuation of that creative process.

I also think about “play” a lot, …what kids like to do, …what makes them laugh. This can lead to some pretty creative ideas –which I know can sometimes seem irreverent to certain kinds of adults. Recently, I wrote a lesson that involved flinging a barbie-doll “super hero” Esther over a “Haman-wall” to land on story questions. I’d done something similar before and knew the kids would love it (and remember it!). I also knew that some adults wouldn’t think that was funny. It’s hard to be creative or playful when you’re a “satisficer.”


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