Behavioral Economics and Deficient Willpower: Searching for Akrasia

24 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2016

Date Written: February 12, 2016


Behavioral economists point to deficient willpower as one of the causes of breakdowns in decisionmaking processes. Individuals, it is claimed, know their optimal course of action but sometimes are unable to implement it because they lack sufficient motivation. This paper demonstrates that the presence of deficient willpower is very difficult to ascertain empirically. There are many phenomena that, consistent with a broad notion of rationality, must be isolated before deficient willpower can be identified. Philosophers have conceptually identified many of them. Behavioral economists, on the other hand, have not been rigorous in their conceptualization of willpower and therefore are unable to identify clear cases of deficiency. Furthermore, the empirical knowledge required of the behavioral economist to identify willpower deficiency are greater than can be satisfied in a public policy context. Therefore, deficient willpower is a poor explanation of behavior and attempts to ameliorate it are inappropriate for public policy.

Keywords: weakness of will, willpower, bounded rationality, irrationality, new paternalism, behavioral economics

JEL Classification: A12, B41, D60, D63

Suggested Citation

Rizzo, Mario J., Behavioral Economics and Deficient Willpower: Searching for Akrasia (February 12, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

Mario J. Rizzo (Contact Author)

New York University ( email )

Department of Economics
19 W, 4th Street
New York, NY 10012
United States
212-998-8932 (Phone)
212-995-4186 (Fax)

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