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How to Tell if You've Made a Good Decision

UC Berkeley economist David Romer found in 2006 that professional football teams go for it on fourth down far less often than they would if they were really trying to maximize the number of points scored - and interpreted this as evidence that real-world businesses probably don’t maximize profits either.  Foto: Julie Jacobson/AP

Fifty years ago, after helping a bunch of nuclear engineers at General Electric figure out whether they should add a superheater to a new reactor, engineering professor Ronald Howard sat down to analyze what he’d just done. “Decision analysis,” he called it, and described it as “a logical procedure for the balancing of the factors that influence a decision” that factored in “uncertainties, values and preferences.”

That sounds complicated, and it can be - the approach often involves a lot of computer modeling. But when I talked to Howard a couple of weeks ago in Palo Alto, where he’s a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, he offered this simpler summing-up: »The takeaway is that you can’t tell the quality of the decision you are making by the outcome that will be produced. Or, to put it another way, you can’t tell by the outcome whether you made a good decision. It’s just a logical mistake to say, 'I got the good outcome, I must have made a good decision.' And yet that’s what everybody thinks.«..

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