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Expected Utility


Expected utility is a financial concept used to measure satisfaction or worth, factoring in the probabilities of different outcomes. It is based on the idea that individuals do not simply weigh actual outcomes, but consider potential ones as well. Therefore, expected utility theory suggests that one makes decisions based on the expected utility of the outcomes, rather than the actual outcomes themselves.


The phonetics for the keyword “Expected Utility” is as follows:Expected: /ɪkˈspɛktɪd/Utility: /juːˈtɪlɪti/

Key Takeaways

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  1. Expected Utility Theory forms the foundational concept in decision science, economics, and game theory. It suggests that rational decision-makers should choose the course of action which maximizes their expected utility, which is the sum of the utilities of each possible outcome of the decision, each being multiplied by the probability of that outcome.
  2. Under the Expected Utility Theory, each outcome is associated with a certain utility and not necessarily a monetary value. This framework allows for consideration of varying attitudes towards risk, typically differentiating between risk-averse, risk-neutral, and risk-seeking individuals. It emphasizes satisfaction received (utility) rather than focusing on achieving the maximum financial outcome.
  3. Despite its widespread use, Expected Utility Theory has criticisms and limitations. Some observed behaviors, like the Allais paradox, violate the theory, suggesting that human decision-making doesn’t always follow this rational model. Moreover, the theory’s reliance on a single, fixed utility function may not accurately reflect changes in individuals’ utility perceptions at different wealth levels.


Expected utility is an essential concept in business and finance because it provides a framework for decision-making under uncertainty. It allows businesses, investors, and financial analysts to predict the potential satisfaction or ‘utility’ one can expect to achieve from a particular investment or business decision. Expected utility theory takes into account both the potential outcomes of a decision and the likelihood of each outcome happening. By doing this, it helps in determining the optimal choices to maximize utility, considering the risks associated with different options. Understanding expected utility is crucial for managing risk, capital allocation, investment strategies, and overall financial planning.


The purpose of Expected Utility is to provide a means to forecast the potential satisfaction, or utility, an individual may get from the outcomes of their decisions, especially in scenarios of uncertainty and risk. This foundational concept in the domain of economics and finance enables one to assess and quantify the desirability of an investment or financial decision by not just considering the potential gains or losses, but by taking the individual’s risk preference into account. The amount of risk a person is willing to handle greatly influences their decision-making process, shaping what financial choices they would find attractive, and Expected Utility theory offers a method to mathematically encapsulate this factor. In terms of its application, Expected Utility is broadly used for making informed choices in investments, insurance, and other financial decisions. For instance, an investor could use it to evaluate various investment options with different levels of risk and returns, hence helping them decide which option aligns better with their risk tolerance and expected satisfaction. Similarly, an insurance company could employ Expected Utility to understand the value to a customer of buying an insurance policy – which involves weighing the cost of the premium against the potential benefit in case of an adverse event. Thus, Expected Utility acts as a compass, providing individuals and enterprises a rational path to navigate through uncertainty and maximize their satisfaction or profit.


1. Investing in Stocks: When individual investors decide to invest in certain stocks, they are often applying the concept of expected utility. They will weigh the potential profit from the investment against the possible loss, considering the likely return rate, the risks associated with the stock or the market condition. Therefore, the choice of stock investment reflects their decision toward expected utility. 2. Gambling: The concept of expected utility can also be observed in gambling. For example, in a game of poker, a player would assess the probability of winning based on their own cards and the perceived cards of others. The expected utility will determine whether they fold or call – if the expected monetary gain tallied with the winning probability is higher than the money they need to put in for the next round, they’d continue the game. 3. Insurance Policies: People pay for insurance policies for their health, property, car, etc., which is another example of expected utility. Even though the probability of an adverse event like an accident or illness is uncertain, people would buy insurance to maximize their expected utility. They view the expense of the insurance premium as less costly than the potential financial loss from an unforeseen event. The decision to get an insurance policy will depend on their risk aversion level and expectation about the potential adverse event.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

What is Expected Utility?
Expected Utility is a term used in economics and finance, referring to the total amount of satisfaction or utility that an individual expects to receive from a specific action or decision.
How does Expected Utility theory relate to decision-making?
Expected Utility theory plays a crucial part in decision-making processes, especially under uncertain circumstances. The theory assumes that individuals make decisions based on the expected utility, i.e., the weighted average of the utilities of all possible outcomes of a decision, where the weights are the respective probabilities.
Is Expected Utility purely subjective?
Yes, Expected Utility is subjective as it varies from person to person. Different individuals may assign different levels of utility to the same situation based on personal preferences, risk tolerance, and other factors.
How is Expected Utility calculated?
Expected Utility is calculated by multiplying the utility of each possible outcome by the probability of each outcome and then summing these values.
Can Expected Utility be used for investment decisions?
Yes, investors often use Expected Utility theory to assist in making investment decisions. They look at the likely returns of an investment (the utility) and the probability of those returns happening when deciding where to invest.
How does Expected Utility relate to risk?
Expected Utility is directly linked to risk. When making decisions, individuals try to maximize their Expected Utility, often leading them to take on more risk if the potential reward is sufficient.
Can Expected Utility be negative?
While utility should ideally always be positive, there can be instances where the utility is negative, such as when a decision leads to a loss. In this instance, the Expected Utility would also be negative.
What is the Expected Utility hypothesis?
The Expected Utility hypothesis is an economic theory proposing that the option with the highest Expected Utility is the one that rational individuals should choose. It is the fundamental concept behind decision-making under uncertainty.

Related Finance Terms

  • Risk Aversion
  • Utility Function
  • Rational Choice Theory
  • St. Petersburg Paradox
  • Von Neumann-Morgenstern Utility Theorem

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