Howard Raiffa, an economics professor whose mathematical formulas for decision making were applied to the search for a missing nuclear bomb and the siting of a Mexico City airport, and were even suggested as a way to resolve a strike by professional hockey players, died on July 8 at his home in Oro Valley, Ariz. He was 92.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, his daughter, Judith Raiffa, said.
Professor Raiffa (pronounced RAY-fa), a co-founder of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (now the Harvard Kennedy School) and a member of the university faculty for 37 years, pioneered what became known as decision science — an academic discipline that encompasses negotiating techniques, conflict resolution, risk analysis and game theory.
He was an innovative and often abstruse theoretician, but he applied his postulates to real-world cases of conflict, cooperation and compromise in planning curriculums, publishing guidebooks and making videos. He was also the founding director, in 1972, of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a joint American-Soviet research organization that explored energy, pollution and other issues as a cooperative venture during the Cold War.
“I learned a lot about the theory and practice of many-party negotiations in the presence of extreme cultural differences,” he once said.
In an interview, Prof. David E. Bell of the Harvard Business School said: “Many academics cross t’s and dot i’s. Howard came up with brand-new theories that helped us understand how we should make decisions in a wide variety of circumstances. These were practical approaches, not ivory tower constructs.”
Professor Raiffa was headed for a career as an actuary when, he once said, “I decided that I really wanted to study something more cerebral — something more theoretical.”
He became an applied mathematician and statistician and, after conducting a “primitive multiple-value analysis” of 10 variables involved in competing job offers, went to Harvard. He held the Frank Plumpton Ramsey professorship of managerial economics at the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School until his retirement from the faculty in 1994.
Among his 11 books were “Games and Decisions: Introduction and Critical Survey” (with R. Duncan Luce, 1957), “Applied Statistical Decision Theory” (with Robert Schlaifer, 1961), “The Art and Science of Negotiation: How to Resolve Conflicts and Get the Best Out of Bargaining” (1982), and two more accessible volumes: “Decision Analysis: Introductory Lectures on Choices Under Uncertainty” (1968) and “Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions” (with John S. Hammond and Ralph L. Keeney, 1998).
The best practical advice, Professor Raiffa wrote, is “to maximize your expected payoff, which is the sum of all payoffs multiplied by probabilities.” He explained that “the art of compromise centers on the willingness to give up something in order to get something else in return.”
“Successful artists,” he added, “get more than they give up.”
Professor Richard Zeckhauser of the Kennedy School said that while Professor Raiffa’s “major intellectual contributions were highly conceptual and theoretical,” he devoted his later career to practical subjects.
In helping the Mexican government decide where to build an airport, he assisted in weighing variables like safety (one possible location required planes to make a steep descent over mountains), noise pollution and convenience.
He delivered a lecture on handicapping horse racing that helped Navy scientists search for a hydrogen bomb lost after a B-52 crash near Palomares, Spain, in 1966. The formula described so-called Bayesian methods of probability, which involve quantifying knowledge or belief.
In 1994, in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times, Prof. James K. Sebenius and his colleague Prof. Michael A. Wheeler invoked an earlier suggestion from Professor Raiffa and David Lax to settle a hockey strike: Revenue would flow into an escrow account, and neither the players nor the owners would be paid until they resolved their differences. (The suggestion was not adopted.)
Howard Raiffa was born in the Bronx on Jan. 24, 1924, the son of Jacob Raiffa, who sold wool products, and the former Hilda Kaplan. He graduated from Evander Childs High School, where he was captain of the basketball team. Math was his best subject, but he dreamed of being a basketball player or coach.
He was attending City College when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he was a radar specialist. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1946, a master’s in statistics and a doctorate in mathematics, all from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In 1945, he married Estelle Schwartz. She and his daughter survive him, as do a son, Mark, and four grandchildren.
After teaching at Columbia University from 1952 to 1957, Professor Raiffa joined the faculty of the business school at Harvard. There, with Graham T. Allison Jr., Francis M. Bator, Ernest May, Frederick Mosteller, Richard E. Neustadt, Thomas C. Schelling and others, he was a founder of the Kennedy School, which evolved from the Graduate School of Public Administration and was renamed in 1966.
Professor Zeckhauser, who said that negotiation analysis had become the most popular course at the Kennedy School, added that Professor Raiffa’s thrust was not simply “how to win.” “Rather,” he said, “it was strongly directed toward the question of how to create joint value. If both participants learned his lessons effectively, they would both be better off.”
His students engaged in sometimes cutthroat simulated negotiations, which prompted The Harvard Crimson to ask him in 1979 whether the curriculum taught students to lie in actual business dealings. He replied by citing a letter about the former president of the University of Chicago.
“When, in the 1950s,” the letter began, “Robert Hutchins was hauled before a congressional committee and asked if it was true that the University of Chicago taught communism, he replied: ‘Yes. And in the medical school we teach cancer.’”
“It’s a valid analogy,” Professor Raiffa replied, according to The Crimson. “To deal with a problem, we have to teach about it.”
The newspaper said he concluded his course with this wish: “When we see we could improve our profit or further maximize our desired result, we might ask, Is this a ‘dirty dollar’ or a ‘clean one’ that we could earn here? What would happen if everybody did this? Would we be able to sleep at night if we did this? How would we feel if we had to explain this to our families?”
“I hope that in answering these questions, you will favor the course of action embracing a higher moral standard.”