# Basics of expected utility theory

I’ve talked quite a bit in past posts about the problems that infinities raise for expected utility theory. In this post, I want to systematically go through and discuss the different categories of problems.

First of all, let’s define expected utility theory.

Definitions:
Given an action A, we have a utility function U over the possible consequences
U = { U1, U2, U3, … UN }
and a credence distribution P over the consequences
P = { P1, P2, P3, … PN }.
We define the expected utility of A to be EU(A) = P1U1 + P2U2 + … + PNUN

Expected Utility Theory:
The rational action is that which maximizes expected utility.

Just to give an example of how this works out, suppose that we can choose between two actions A1 and A2, defined as follows:

Action A1
U1 = { 20, -10 }
P1 = { 50%, 50% }

Action A2
U2 = { 10, -20 }
P2 = { 80%, 20% }

We can compare the expected utilities of these two actions by using the above formula.

EU(A1) = 20∙50% + -10∙50% = 5
EU(A2) = 10∙80% + -20∙20% = 4

Since EU(A1) is greater than EU(A2), expected utility theory mandates that A1 is the rational act for us to take.

Expected utility theory seems to work out fine in the case of finite payouts, but becomes strange when we begin to introduce infinities. Before even talking about the different problems that arise, though, you might be tempted to brush off this issue, thinking that infinite payouts don’t really exist in the real world.

While this is a tenable position to hold, it is certainly not obviously correct. We can easily construct games that are actually do-able that have an infinite expected payout. For instance, a friend of mine runs the following procedure whenever it is getting late and he is trying to decide whether or not he should head home: First, he flips a coin. If it lands heads, he heads home. If tails, he waits one minute and then re-flips the coin. If it lands heads this time, he heads home. If tails, then he waits two minutes and re-flips the coin. On the next flip, if it lands tails, he waits four minutes. Then eight. And so on. The danger of this procedure is that on overage, he ends up staying out for an infinitely long period of time.

This is a more dangerous real-world application of the St. Petersburg Paradox (although you’ll be glad to know that he hasn’t yet been stuck hanging out with me for an infinite amount of time). We might object: Yes, in theory this has an infinite expected time. But we know that in practice, there will be some cap on the total possible time. Perhaps this cap corresponds to the limit of tolerance that my friend has before he gives up on the game. Or, more conclusively, there is certainly an upper limit in terms of his life span.

Are there any real infinities out there that could translate into infinite utilities? Once again, plausibly no. But it doesn’t seem impossible that such infinities could arise. For instance, even if we wanted to map utilities onto positive-valence experiences and believed that there was a theoretical upper limit on the amount of positivity you could possible experience in a finite amount of time, we could still appeal to the possibility of an eternity of happiness. If God appeared before you and offered you an eternity of existence in a Heaven, then you would presumably be considering an offer with a net utility of positive infinity. Maybe you think this is implausible (I certainly do), but it is at least a possibility that we could be confronted with real infinities in expected utility calculations.

Reassured that infinite utilities are probably not a priori ruled out, we can now ask: How does expected utility theory handle these scenarios?

There are three general classes of failures:

1. Failure of dominance arguments
2. Undefined expected utilities
3. Nonsensical expected utilities

# Failure of dominance arguments

A dominance argument is an argument that says that if the expected utility of one action is greater than the expected utility of another, no matter what is the case.

Here’s an example. Consider two lotteries: Lottery 1 and Lottery 2. Each one decides on whether a player wins or not by looking at some fixed random event (say, whether or not a radioactive atom decays within a fixed amount of time T), but the reward for winning differs. If the radioactive atom does decay within time T, then you would get \$100,000 from Lottery 1 and \$200,000 from Lottery 2. If it does not, then you lose \$200 dollars from Lottery 1 and lose \$100 dollars from Lottery 2. Now imagine that you can choose only one of these two lotteries.

To summarize: If the atom decays, then Lottery 1 gives you \$100,000 less than Lottery 2. And if the atom doesn’t decay, then Lottery 1 charges you \$100 more than Lottery 2.

In other words, no matter what ends up happing, you are better off choosing Lottery 2 than Lottery 1. This means that Lottery 2 dominates Lottery 1 as a strategy. There is no possible configuration of the world in which you would have been better off by choosing Lottery 1 than you were by Lottery 2, so this choice is essentially risk-free.

So we have the following general principle, which seems to follow nicely from a simple application of expected utility theory:

Dominance: If action A1 dominates action A2, then it is irrational to choose A2 over A1.

Amazingly, this straightforward and apparently obvious rule ends up failing us when we start to talk about infinite payoffs.

Consider the following setup:

Action 1
U = { ∞, 0 }
P = { .5, .5 }

Action 2
U = { ∞, 10 }
P = { .5, .5 }

Action 2 weakly dominates Action 1. This means that no matter what consequence ends up obtaining, we always end up either better off or equally well off if we take Action 2 than Action 1. But when we calculate the expected utilities…

EU(Action 1) = .5 ∙ ∞ + .5 ∙ 0 = ∞
EU(Action 2) = .5 ∙ ∞ + .5 ∙ 10 = ∞

… we find that the two actions are apparently equal in utility, so we should have no preference between them.

This is pretty bizarre. Imagine the following scenario: God is about to appear in front of you and ship you off to Heaven for an eternity of happiness. In the few minutes before he arrives, you are able to enjoy a wonderfully delicious-looking Klondike bar if you so choose. Obviously the rational thing to do is to eat the Klondike bar, right? Apparently not, according to expected utility theory. The additional little burst of pleasure you get fades into irrelevance as soon as the infinities enter the calculation.

Not only do infinities make us indifferent between two actions, one of which dominates the other, but they can even make us end up choosing actions that are clearly dominated! My favorite example of this is one that I’ve talked about earlier, featuring a recently deceased Donald Trump sitting in Limbo negotiating with God.

To briefly rehash this thought experiment, every day Donald Trump is given an offer by God that he spend one day in Hell and in reward get two days in Heaven afterwards. Each day, the rational choice is for Trump to take the offer, spending one more day in Hell before being able to receive his reward. But since he accepts the offer every day, he ends up always delaying his payout in Heaven, and therefore spends all of eternity in Hell, thinking that he’s making a great deal.

We can think of Trump’s reason for accepting each day as a simple expected utility calculation: U(2 days in Heaven) + U(1 day in Hell) > 0. But iterating this decision an infinity of times ends up leaving Trump in the worst possible scenario – eternal torture.

# Undefined expected utilities

Now suppose that you get the following deal from God: Either (Option 1) you die and stop existing (suppose this has utility 0 to you), or (Option 2) you die and continue existing in the afterlife forever. If you choose the afterlife, then your schedule will be arranged as follows: 1,000 days of pure bliss in heaven, then one day of misery in hell. Suppose that each day of bliss has finite positive value to you, and each day of misery has finite negative value to you, and that these two values perfectly cancel each other out (a day in Hell is as bad as a day in Heaven is good).

Which option should you take? It seems reasonable that Option 2 is preferable, as you get a thousand to one ratio of happiness to unhappiness for all of eternity.

Option 1: 💀, 💀, 💀, 💀,
Option 2:
😇 x 1000, 😟, 😇 x 1000, 😟, …

Since U(💀) = 0, we can calculate the expected utility of Option 1 fine. But what about Option 2? The answer we get depends on the order in which we add up the utilities of each day. If we take the days in chronological order, than we get a total infinite positive utility. If we alternate between Heaven days and Hell days, then we get a total expected utility of zero. And if we add up in the order (Hell, Hell, Heaven, Hell, Hell, Heaven, …), then we end up getting an infinite negative expected utility.

In other words, the expected utility of Option 2 is undefined, giving us no guidance as to which we should prefer. Intuitively, we would want a rational theory of preference would tell us that Option 2 is preferable.

A slightly different example of this: Consider the following three lotteries:

Lottery 1
U = { ∞, -∞ }
P = { .5, .5 }

Lottery 2
U = { ∞, -∞ }
P = { .01, .99 }

Lottery 3
U = { ∞, -∞ }
P = { .99, .01 }

Lottery 1 corresponds to flipping a fair coin to determine whether you go to Heaven forever or Hell forever. Lottery 2 corresponds to picking a number between 1 and 100 to decide. And Lottery 3 corresponds to getting to pick 99 numbers between 1 and 100 to decide. It should be obvious that if you were in this situation, then you should prefer Lottery 3 over Lottery 1, and Lottery 1 over Lottery 2. But here, again, expected utility theory fails us. None of these lotteries have defined expected utilities, because ∞ – ∞ is not well defined.

# Nonsensical expected utilities

A stranger approaches you and demands twenty bucks, on pain of an eternity of torture. What should you do?

Expected utility theory tells us that as long as we have some non-zero credence in this person’s threat being credible, then we should hand over the twenty bucks. After all, a small but nonzero probability multiplied by -∞ is still just -∞.

Should we have a non-zero credence in the threat being credible? Plausibly so. To have a zero credence in the threat’s credibility is to imagine that there is no possible evidence that could make it any more likely. It is true that no experience you could have would make the threat any more credible? What if he demonstrated incredible control over the universe?

In the end, we have an inconsistent triad.

1. The rational thing to do is that which maximizes expected utility.
2. There is a nonzero chance that the stranger threatening you with eternal torture is actually able to follow through on this threat.
3. It is irrational to hand over the five dollars to the stranger.

This is a rephrasing of Pascal’s wager, but without the same problems as that thought experiment.