Herbert A. Simon

Simon’s Early Life and Education

Herbert Alexander Simon (19162001) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was an electrical engineer and a patent attorney who emigrated from Germany to the US in 1903. His mother was a concert pianist whose family’s roots were in Prague and Cologne. Simon’s family was predominantly Jewish on both sides.

Simon attended the public schools in Milwaukee, where he excelled academically. As a middle-school student, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Milwaukee Journal defending the civil rights of atheists, among whom the precocious young man already counted himself.

One of Simon’s maternal uncle studied economics under John R. Commons at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The future Nobel laureate borrowed his uncles textbooks on economics and psychology, and became enthusiastic about the possibilities of the social sciences for explaining human behavior.

Simon has also cited early reading of the once-prominent social thinkers, Norman Angell and Henry George, as important influences on this thinking.

In 1933, Simon entered the University of Chicago. Simon has stated that he would have liked to be a biologist, but was unable to perform the necessary laboratory experiments due to his color-blindness. As a result, he majored in mathematics and the social sciences.

Simon received his bachelor’s degree in 1936 and his PhD in 1943, both in political science and both from the University of Chicago.

While at Chicago, Simon studied with a galaxy of intellectual stars, including the political scientists, Harold Lasswell and Charles Edward Merriam, the economist and statistician, Henry Schultz, the mathematical biologist, Nicolas Rashevsky, and the philosopher and logician, Rudolf Carnap.

In 1938, while still a graduate student, Simon published his first book, co-authored with one of his professors, Clarence Ridley, and entitled Measuring Municipal Activities: A Survey of Suggested Criteria for Appraising Administration.

During this same period, Simon also worked as a researcher, and later a project director, in municipal administration at the University of California at Berkeley.

Simon’s Career

In 1942, Simon obtained his first regular job as an assistant professor of political science the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), a private technical institute in Chicago. He taught at IIT until 1949.

While at IIT, Simon participated in seminars held by the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics—located at the University of Chicago at the time—where he made the acquaintance of the future Nobel laureates in economics, Trygve Haavelmo and Tjalling Koopmans.

As a result of these encounters, Simon began to intensively study the field of economics known as institutionalism, which emphasizes the causal influences that specific forms of social, political, legal, and financial institutions may exert on an economy.

In 1949, Simon moved from IIT to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1967, the institution changed its name to Carnegie-Mellon University.

Simon was a Carnegie-Mellon faculty member until his death in 2001. While he was originally hired to teach administration in the Department of Industrial Management, in later years, Simon also taught psychology and computer science.

Simon also held a number of visiting professorships at other universities over the years.

Simon’s Ideas

Simon’s research interests were wide-ranging. He made seminal contributions to two separate disciplines: cognitive science and economics. However, the two contributions were intimately related to each other.

Simon began his career by studying the organizational context of public administration. It was in this context that he originally developed his two best-known ideas: “bounded rationality” and “satisficing.”

“Bounded rationality” is the idea that human reasoning and decision-making are conditioned by various psychological factors which render them sub-optimal from the point of view of ideal cognitive disciplines such as logic and mathematics.

 “Satisficing” is the idea that living cognitive systems—animals and humans—do not typically seek optimal solutions, but rather “good enough” solutions for the purpose of attaining their immediate goals (capturing prey, etc.), and thus their ultimate goal of surviving.

Both bounded rationality and satisficing are crucial concepts for our understanding of real-world, human rationality.

Simon’s ideas had a profound influence, in the first instance, on the world of computer science, especially on the modeling of human decision-making, which eventually led to the discipline of artificial intelligence.

Simon’s work on decision-making under the condition of bounded rationality—particularly, in the form of incomplete information—also had a profound impact on the discipline of economics. Especially as later elaborated by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, his ideas proved to be seminal to the development of the highly influential new discipline of behavioral economics.

For this remarkable body of work, Simon received both the 1975 A.M. Turing Award—which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for the field of computer science—and the 1978 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Simon is the only person ever to have won both the Turing Award and the Nobel Prize for economics.

Selected Works by Simon

Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organization (1947; fourth edition: 1997).

Models of Man: Social and Rational-Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting (1957).

Organizations, with James G. March and Harold Guetzkow (1958; second edition: 1993).

The New Science of Management Decision (1960).

“The Architecture of Complexity,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 106: 467–482 (1962).

The Sciences of the Artificial (1969; second edition: 1981; third edition: 1996).

Human Problem Solving, with Allen Newell (1972).

Models of Discovery: and Other Topics in the Methods of Science (1977).

Models of Thought (collected papers on information-processing and problem-solving; two volumes) (1979).

Models of Bounded Rationality (collected papers on economics; three volumes) (1982, 1997).

Reason in Human Affairs (1983).

Protocol Analysis: Verbal Reports as Data, with K. Anders Ericsson (1984; revised edition: 1993).

Scientific Discovery: Computational Explorations of the Creative Processes, with Pat Langley, Gary L. Bradshaw, and Jan M. Zytkow (1987).

Public Administration, with Victor A. Thompson and Donald W. Smithburg (1991).

Models of My Life (1991).

Economics, Bounded Rationality, and the Cognitive Revolution, with Massimo Egidi, Riccardo Viale, and Robin Marris (1992).

An Empirically-Based Microeconomics (1997).

Selected Works About Simon

Augier, Mie and James G. March, eds., Models of a Man: Essays in Memory of Herbert A. Simon (2004).

Bender, Jonathan, “Herbert A. Simon: Political Scientist,” Annual Review of Political Science, 6: 433–471 (2003).

Crowther-Heyck, Hunter, Herbert A. Simon: The Bounds of Reason in Modern America (2005).

Frantz, Roger and Leslie Marsh, eds., Minds, Models and Milieux: Commemorating the Centennial of the Birth of Herbert Simon (2016).

Klahr, David and Kenneth Kotovsky, eds., Complex Information Processing: The Impact of Herbert A. Simon(1989).

Rainey, Hal G., “A Reflection on Herbert Simon: A Satisficing Search for Significance,” Administration and Society, 33: 491–507 (2001).