Simon, Herbert A.

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Herbert Alexander Simon (1916–2001) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 15. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago in 1943, and taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology (1942–1949) before going to Carnegie Mellon University in 1949, where he remained until his death on February 9. Simon received major awards from many scientific communities, including the A.M. Turing Award (with Allen Newell; 1975), the Nobel Prize in Economics (1978), and the National Medal of Science (1986). During his career, Simon also served on the National Academy of Science's Committee on Science and Public Policy and as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee. Simon made important contributions to economics, psychology, political science, sociology, administrative theory, public administration, organization theory, cognitive science, computer science, and philosophy. His best known books include Administrative Behavior (1947), Organizations (with James G. March 1958), The Sciences of the Artificial (1969), Human Problem Solving (with Newell 1972), and his autobiography, Models of My Life (1991). Having advanced the scientific analysis of decision-making, Simon's thought also has evident implications for bringing ethics to bear on science and technology.

A New Theory of Decision-Making

Decision-making was the core of Simon's work. It was the heart of his dissertation, later published as Administrative Behavior, and it became the basis of his other contributions to organization theory, economics, psychology, and computer science. Decision-making, as Simon saw it, is purposeful, yet not rational, because rational decision-making would involve a complete specification of all possible outcomes conditional on possible actions in order to choose the single best among alternative possible actions. In challenging neoclassical economics, Simon found that such complex calculation is not possible. As a result, Simon wanted to replace the economic assumption of global rationality with an assumption that was more in correspondence with how humans actually make decisions, their computational limitations, and how they access information in a current environment (Simon 1955), thereby introducing the concepts of bounded rationality and satisficing.

Satisficing is the idea that decision makers interpret outcomes as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, with an aspiration level constituting the boundary between the two. In neoclassical rational choice theory decision makers would list all possible outcomes evaluated in terms of their expected utilities, and then chose the one that is rational and maximizes utility. According to Simon's model, decision makers face only two possible outcomes, and look for a satisfying solution, continuing to search only until they have found a solution that is good enough. The ideas of bounded rationality and satisficing became important for subsequent developments in economics.

Simon used this view of decision-making to create (together with March and Harold Guetzkow) a propositional inventory of organization theory, which led to the book Organizations (1958). The book was intended to provide the inventory of knowledge of the (then almost nonexistent) field of organization theory, and also a more proactive role in defining the field. Results and insights from studies of organizations in political science, sociology, economics, and social psychology were summarized and codified. The book expanded and elaborated ideas on behavioral decision-making, search and aspiration levels, and the significance of organizations as social institutions in society. "The basic features of organization structure and function," March and Simon wrote,

derive from the characteristics of rational human choice. Because of the limits of human intellective capacities in comparison with the complexities of the problems that individuals and organizations face, rational behavior calls for simplified models that capture the main features of a problem without capturing all its complexities." (p. 151)

The book is now considered a classic and pioneering work in organization theory.

Interdisciplinary Contributions

Simon also incorporated these views into his contributions to psychology, computer science, and artificial intelligence. For example, in his work with Newell, Simon attempted to develop a general theory of human problem solving that conceptualized both humans and computers as symbolic information processing systems (Newell and Simon 1972). Their theory was built around the concept of an information processing system, defined by the existence of symbols, elements of which are connected by relations into structures of symbols. The book became as influential in cognitive science and artificial intelligence as Simon's earlier work had been in economics and organization theory.

During his amazingly productive intellectual life, Simon worked on many projects, yet essentially pursued one vision—understanding how human beings make decisions. He contributed significantly to many scientific disciplines, yet found scientific boundaries themselves to be less important, even unimportant, vis-à-vis solving the questions he was working on. Even as Simon sought to develop the idea that one could simulate the psychological process of thinking, he tied his interest in economics and decision-making closely to computer science and psychology. He used computer science to model human problem solving in a way that was consistent with his approach to rationality. He implemented his early ideas of bounded rationality and means–ends analysis into the heart of his work on artificial intelligence.


SEE ALSO Economics and Ethics;Management.


Augier, Mie-Sophia, and James G. March. (2002). "A Model Scholar." Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 49(1): 1–17.

March, James G., and Herbert A. Simon. (1958). Organizations. New York: Wiley; 2nd edition, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

Newell, Allen, and Herbert A. Simon. (1972). Human Problem Solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Simon, Herbert A. (1947). Administrative Behavior. New York: Macmillan; 4th edition, New York: Free Press, 1997.

Simon, Herbert A. (1955). "A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice." Quarterly Journal of Economics 69(1): 99–118.

Simon, Herbert A. (1969). The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 3rd edition, 1996.

Simon, Herbert A. (1991). Models of My Life. New York: Basic.