The optimizer's curse: Skepticism and postdecision surprise in decision analysis


Journal Article

Decision analysis produces measures of value such as expected net present values or expected utilities and ranks alternatives by these value estimates. Other optimization-based processes operate in a similar manner. With uncertainty and limited resources, an analysis is never perfect, so these value estimates are subject to error. We show that if we take these value estimates at face value and select accordingly, we should expect the value of the chosen alternative to be less than its estimate, even if the value estimates are unbiased. Thus, when comparing actual outcomes to value estimates, we should expect to be disappointed on average, not because of any inherent bias in the estimates themselves, but because of the optimization-based selection process. We call this phenomenon the optimizer's curse and argue that it is not well understood or appreciated in the decision analysis and management science communities. This curse may be a factor in creating skepticism in decision makers who review the results of an analysis. In this paper, we study the optimizer's curse and show that the resulting expected disappointment may be substantial. We then propose the use of Bayesian methods to adjust value estimates. These Bayesian methods can be viewed as disciplined skepticism and provide a method for avoiding this postdecision disappointment. © 2006 INFORMS.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Smith, JE; Winkler, RL

Published Date

  • March 1, 2006

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 52 / 3

Start / End Page

  • 311 - 322

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1526-5501

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0025-1909

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1287/mnsc.1050.0451

Citation Source

  • Scopus