This area represents the heart of decision theory. The procedure now referred to as expected value was known from the 17th century. Blaise Pascal invoked it in his famous wager (see below), 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. 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 also 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, when it is known that there is a 5% chance that the ship and cargo will be lost. In his solution, he defines a utility function and computes expected utility rather than expected financial value.

In the 20th century, interest was reignited by Abraham Wald’s 1939 paper 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.

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 this time, von Neumann’s theory of expected utility proved that expected utility maximization followed from basic postulates about rational behavior.

Daniel Kahneman

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.

Castagnoli and LiCalzi (1996), Bordley and LiCalzi (2000) recently showed that maximizing expected utility is mathematically equivalent to maximizing the probability that the uncertain consequences of a decision are preferable to an uncertain benchmark (e.g., the probability that a mutual fund strategy outperforms the S&P 500 or that a firm outperforms the uncertain future performance of a major competitor.). This reinterpretation relates to psychological work suggesting that individuals have fuzzy aspiration levels (Lopes & Oden),[citation needed] which may vary from choice context to choice context. Hence it shifts the focus from utility to the individual’s uncertain reference point.

Pascal’s Wager is a classic example of a choice under uncertainty.