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Decision theory (or the theory of choice) is the study of the reasoning underlying an agent's choices.[1] Decision theory can be broken into two branches: normative decision theory, which gives advice on how to make the best decisions, given a set of uncertain beliefs and a set of values; and descriptive decision theory, which analyzes how existing, possibly irrational agents actually make decisions.

Closely related to the field of game theory,[2] decision theory is concerned with the choices of individual agents whereas game theory is concerned with interactions of agents whose decisions affect each other. Decision theory is an interdisciplinary topic, studied by economists, statisticians, psychologists, biologists,[3] political and other social scientists, philosophers,[4] and computer scientists.

Empirical applications of this rich theory are usually done with the help of statistical and econometric methods, especially via the so-called choice models, such as probit and logit models. Estimation of such models is usually done via parametric, semi-parametric and non-parametric maximum likelihood methods.[5]


Normative and descriptiveEdit

Normative decision theory is concerned with identifying the best decisions by considering an ideal decision maker who is able to compute with perfect accuracy and is fully rational. The practical application of this prescriptive approach (how people ought tomake decisions) is called decision analysis, and is aimed at finding tools, methodologies and software (decision support systems) to help people make better decisions.[6][7]

In contrast, positive or descriptive decision theory is concerned with describing observed behaviors under the assumption that the decision-making agents are behaving under some consistent rules. These rules may, for instance, have a procedural framework (e.g. Amos Tversky's elimination by aspects model) or an axiomatic framework, reconciling the Von Neumann-Morgenstern axioms with behavioral violations of the expected utility hypothesis, or they may explicitly give a functional form for time-inconsistentutility functions(e.g. Laibson's quasi-hyperbolic discounting).[6][7]

The prescriptions or predictions about behaviour that positive decision theory produces allow for further tests of the kind of decision-making that occurs in practice. There is a thriving dialogue with experimental economics, which uses laboratory and field experiments to evaluate and inform theory. In recent decades, there has also been increasing interest in what is sometimes called "behavioral decision theory" and this has contributed to a re-evaluation of what rational decision-making requires.[8][9]

Types of DecisionsEdit

Choice under uncertaintyEdit

The area of choice under uncertainty represents the heart of decision theory. Known from the 17th century (Blaise Pascal invoked it in his famous wager, which is contained in his Pensées, published in 1670), the idea of expected value is that, when faced with a number of actions, each of which could give rise to more than one possible outcome with different probabilities, the rational procedure is to identify all possible outcomes, determine their values (positive or negative) and the probabilities that will result from each course of action, and multiply the two to give an "expected value", or the average expectation for an outcome; the action to be chosen should be the one that gives rise to the highest total expected value. In 1738, Daniel Bernoulli published an influential paper entitled Exposition of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk, in which he uses the St. Petersburg paradox to show that expected value theory must be normatively wrong. He gives an example in which a Dutch merchant is trying to decide whether to insure a cargo being sent from Amsterdam to St Petersburg in winter. In his solution, he defines a utility function and computes expected utility rather than expected financial value (see[10] for a review).

In the 20th century, interest was reignited by Abraham Wald's 1939 paper[11] pointing out that the two central procedures of sampling-distribution-based statistical-theory, namely hypothesis testing and parameter estimation, are special cases of the general decision problem. Wald's paper renewed and synthesized many concepts of statistical theory, including loss functions, risk functions, admissible decision rules, antecedent distributions, Bayesian procedures, and minimax procedures. The phrase "decision theory" itself was used in 1950 by E. L. Lehmann.[12]

The revival of subjective probability theory, from the work of Frank Ramsey, Bruno de Finetti, Leonard Savage and others, extended the scope of expected utility theory to situations where subjective probabilities can be used. At the time, von Neumann and Morgenstern’s theory of expected utility[13] proved that expected utility maximization followed from basic postulates about rational behavior.

The work of Maurice Allais and Daniel Ellsberg showed that human behavior has systematic and sometimes important departures from expected-utility maximization. The prospect theory of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky renewed the empirical study of economic behavior with less emphasis on rationality presuppositions. Kahneman and Tversky found three regularities – in actual human decision-making, "losses loom larger than gains"; persons focus more on changes in their utility-states than they focus on absolute utilities; and the estimation of subjective probabilities is severely biased by anchoring.

Intertemporal choiceEdit

Intertemporal choice is concerned with the kind of choice where different actions lead to outcomes that are realised at different points in time. If someone received a windfall of several thousand dollars, they could spend it on an expensive holiday, giving them immediate pleasure, or they could invest it in a pension scheme, giving them an income at some time in the future. What is the optimal thing to do? The answer depends partly on factors such as the expected rates of interest and inflation, the person's life expectancy, and their confidence in the pensions industry. However even with all those factors taken into account, human behavior again deviates greatly from the predictions of prescriptive decision theory, leading to alternative models in which, for example, objective interest rates are replaced by subjective discount rates.

Interaction of decision makersEdit

Some decisions are difficult because of the need to take into account how other people in the situation will respond to the decision that is taken. The analysis of such social decisions is more often treated under the label of game theory, rather than decision theory, though it involves the same mathematical methods. From the standpoint of game theory most of the problems treated in decision theory are one-player games (or the one player is viewed as playing against an impersonal background situation). In the emerging field of socio-cognitive engineering, the research is especially focused on the different types of distributed decision-making in human organizations, in normal and abnormal/emergency/crisis situations.[14]

Complex decisionsEdit

Other areas of decision theory are concerned with decisions that are difficult simply because of their complexity, or the complexity of the organization that has to make them. Individuals making decisions may be limited in resources or are boundedly rational (have finite time or intelligence); in such cases the issue, more than the deviation between real and optimal behaviour, is the difficulty of determining the optimal behaviour in the first place. One example is the model of economic growth and resource usage developed by the Club of Rome to help politicians make real-life decisions in complex situations[citation needed]. Decisions are also affected by whether options are framed together or separately; this is known as the distinction bias. In 2011, Dwayne Rosenburgh explored and showed how decision theory can be applied to complex decisions that arise in areas such as wireless communications.[15]


Heuristics in decision-making is the ability of making decisions based on unjustified or routine thinking. While quicker than step-by-step processing, heuristic thinking is also more likely to experience fallacies or inaccuracies.[16]The main use for heuristics in our daily routines is to decrease the amount of evaluative thinking we perform when making simple decisions, and instead make them based on unconscious rules and focusing on some aspects of the decision, while ignoring others.[17]One example of common and erroneous thought process that arrises through heuristic thinking is the Gambler's Fallacy. Believing that a isolated random event is affected by previous isolated random events, for example if a coin is flipped to tails for a couple of turns it still carries the same probability of doing so, however intuitively it sounds more likely for it to roll heads soon.[18]This happens because, due to routine thinking, one disregards the probability and concentrate on the ratio of the outcome, meaning, in the long run the ratio of flips should be half for each outcome.[19]Another example is that decision-makers may be biased towards preferring moderate alternatives to extreme ones; the "Compromise Effect" operates under a mindset that the most moderate option carries the most benefit. In an incomplete information scenario, like in most daily decisions, the moderate option will look more appealing than either extreme independent of the context, based only on the fact that it gathers characteristics that can be found in either extremes.[20]


A highly controversial issue is whether one can replace the use of probability in decision theory by other alternatives.

Probability theoryEdit

Advocates for the use of probability theory point to:

  • the work of Richard Threlkeld Cox for justification of the probability axioms,
  • the Dutch book paradoxes of Bruno de Finetti as illustrative of the theoretical difficulties that can arise from departures from the probability axioms, and
  • the complete class theorems, which show that all admissible decision rules are equivalent to the Bayesian decision rule for some utility function and some prior distribution (or for the limit of a sequence of prior distributions). Thus, for every decision rule, either the rule may be reformulated as a Bayesian procedure (or a limit of a sequence of such), or there is a rule that is sometimes better and never worse.

Alternatives to probability theoryEdit

The proponents of fuzzy logic, possibility theory, quantum cognition, Dempster–Shafer theory, and info-gap decision theory maintain that probability is only one of many alternatives and point to many examples where non-standard alternatives have been implemented with apparent success; notably, probabilistic decision theory is sensitive to assumptions about the probabilities of various events, while non-probabilistic rules such as minimax are robust, in that they do not make such assumptions.

Ludic fallacyEdit

A general criticism of decision theory based on a fixed universe of possibilities is that it considers the "known unknowns", not the "unknown unknowns"[citation needed]: it focuses on expected variations, not on unforeseen events, which some argue (as in black swan theory) have outsized impact and must be considered – significant events may be "outside model". This line of argument, called the ludic fallacy, is that there are inevitable imperfections in modeling the real world by particular models, and that unquestioning reliance on models blinds one to their limits.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Steele, Katie and Stefánsson, H. Orri, "Decision Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = [1]
  2. ^ Myerson, Roger B. (1991). "1.2: Basic concepts of Decision Theory". Game theory analysis of conflict. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674728615.
  3. ^ Habibi, Iman; Cheong, Raymond; Lipniacki, Tomasz; Levchenko, Andre; Emamian, Effat S.; Abdi, Ali (2017-04-05). "Computation and measurement of cell decision making errors using single cell data". PLOS Computational Biology. 13 (4): e1005436. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005436. ISSN 1553-7358.
  4. ^ Hansson, Sven Ove. "Decision theory: A brief introduction." (2005) Section 1.2: A truly interdisciplinary subject.
  5. ^ Park, Byeong U.; Simar, Léopold; Zelenyuk, Valentin (2017). "Nonparametric estimation of dynamic discrete choice models for time series data". Computational Statistics & Data Analysis. 108: 97–120. doi:10.1016/j.csda.2016.10.024.
  6. ^ a b MacCrimmon, Kenneth R. "Descriptive and normative implications of the decision-theory postulates." Risk and uncertainty. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1968. 3-32.
  7. ^ a b Slovic, Paul, Baruch Fischhoff, and Sarah Lichtenstein. "Behavioral decision theory." Annual review of psychology28.1 (1977): 1-39.
  8. ^ For instance, see: Anand, Paul (1993). Foundations of Rational Choice Under Risk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. ^ Keren, Gideon B., and Willem A. Wagenaar. “On the Psychology of Playing Blackjack: Normative and Descriptive Considerations with Implications for Decision Theory.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 114, no. 2, June 1985, pp. 133–158. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/0096-3445.114.2.133
  10. ^ Schoemaker, P. J. H. (1982). "The Expected Utility Model: Its Variants, Purposes, Evidence and Limitations". Journal of Economic Literature. 20: 529–563.
  11. ^ Wald, Abraham (1939). "Contributions to the Theory of Statistical Estimation and Testing Hypotheses". Annals of Mathematical Statistics. 10 (4): 299–326. doi:10.1214/aoms/1177732144. MR 0000932.
  12. ^ Lehmann, E. L. (1950). "Some Principles of the Theory of Testing Hypotheses". Annals of Mathematical Statistics. 21 (1): 1–26. doi:10.1214/aoms/1177729884. JSTOR 2236552.
  13. ^ Neumann, John von; Morgenstern, Oskar (1953) [1944]. Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (Third ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  14. ^ Crozier, M. & Friedberg, E. 1995. "Organization and Collective Action. Our Contribution to Organizational Analysis" in Bacharach S.B, Gagliardi P. & Mundell P. (Eds). Research in the Sociology of Organizations. Vol. XIII, Special Issue on European Perspectives of Organizational Theory, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
  15. ^ Rosenburgh, D. 2011. "Decision Theory with its Applications in Wireless Communication" in Zhang, Y. (Ed.), GUIZANI, M. (Ed.). (2011). Game Theory for Wireless Communications and Networking. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
  16. ^ Johnson, Eric J, and Payne, John W. “Effort and Accuracy in Choice.” Management science 31.4 (1985): 395–414. Web.
  17. ^ Bobadilla-Suarez, Sebastian et al. “Fast or Frugal, but Not Both: Decision Heuristics Under Time Pressure.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 44.1 (2018): 24–33. Web.
  18. ^ Roe, Robert M, Busemeyer, Jermone R, and Townsend, James T. “Multialternative Decision Field Theory: A Dynamic Connectionst Model of Decision Making.” The psychological review. 108.2 (2001): 370–392. Web.
  19. ^ Xu, Juemin, and Harvey, Nigel. “Carry on Winning: The Gamblers’ Fallacy Creates Hot Hand Effects in Online Gambling.” Cognition 131.2 (2014): 173–180. Web.
  20. ^ Chuang, Shih-Chieh et al. “The Effect of Incomplete Information on the Compromise Effect.” Judgment and Decision Making 7.2 (2012): 196. Web.

Further readingEdit

de Finetti, Bruno. "Foresight: its Logical Laws, Its Subjective Sources," (translation of the 1937 article in French) in H. E. Kyburg and H. E. Smokler (eds), Studies in Subjective Probability, New York: Wiley, 1964.
  • de Finetti, Bruno. Theory of Probability, (translation by AFM Smith of 1970 book) 2 volumes, New York: Wiley, 1974-5.
  • Donald Davidson, Patrick Suppes and Sidney Siegel (1957). Decision-Making: An Experimental Approach. Stanford University Press.
  • Pfanzagl, J (1967). "Morgenstern". In Martin Shubik. Essays in Mathematical Economics In Honor of Oskar Morgenstern. Princeton University Press. pp. 237–251.
  • Pfanzagl, J. in cooperation with V. Baumann and H. Huber (1968). "Events, Utility and Subjective Probability". Theory of Measurement. Wiley. pp. 195–220.
  • Morgenstern, Oskar (1976). "Some Reflections on Utility". In Andrew Schotter. Selected Economic Writings of Oskar Morgenstern. New York University Press. pp. 65–70. ISBN 0-8147-7771-6.
  • Non-Robust Models in Statistics by Lev B. Klebanov, Svetlozat T. Rachev and Frank J. Fabozzi, Nova Scientific Publishers, Inc. New York, 2009.