Goodhart’s Law And Why It Matters In Business

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Understanding Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart would later admit that his quip was intended to be a humorous, throw-away comment. But it was nevertheless an accurate and perceptive observation about how the modern world functions.

It’s important to note that Goodhart himself had no role in naming the law for which he is named. That distinction goes to anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, who argued in a 1997 paper that the law had uses beyond statistics to evaluation in a broader sense.

An oft-told story of Goodhart’s Law at work can be described by the cobra effect. In India under British colonial rule, the government was troubled by the number of venomous cobras. To reduce their population, the government placed a bounty on every cobra the locals could catch. This strategy worked for a while, but some individuals began breeding the cobras only to kill them later and collect a higher bounty. 

Eventually, the colonial government caught on and scrapped the scheme, causing many of the bred cobras to be released into the wild. The key takeaway of the cobra effect story is that incentives designed to solve a problem end up rewarding people for making the problem worse.

The four forms of Goodhart’s Law

There are generally accepted to be four variations on Goodhart’s Law:

  1. Regressive Goodhart – here, the measures individuals use for their target (goal) are imperfectly correlated with that goal. For example, weight is imperfectly correlated with health because it encourages skipping meals or weighing oneself in the morning with an empty stomach.
  2. Extremal Goodhart – this occurs when a measurement is picked because it correlates with a goal in normal situations. In extreme circumstances however, the measure is erroneous. The human relationship with sugar is a classic example. While sugar was correlated with survival thousands of years ago, the same cannot be said of modern, sedentary lifestyles where sugar promotes obesity.
  3. Causal Goodhart – where the behavior of an individual does not directly affect the goal but has some causal effect on the measure. The number of times a gym membership is renewed does not directly impact how often an individual exercises, for example.
  4. Adversarial Goodhart – where other goals confound the goal a measure is trying to accomplish, such as the cobra effect mentioned above.

Avoiding the impact of Goodhart’s Law

Of the four variations of Goodhart’s Law, only the Regressive Goodhart is unavoidable.

For the remaining three, here are some simple avoidance tips:

  • Conduct regular checks to ensure the measure is still incentivizing in line with the desired outcome or goal.
  • Become aware of Goodhart’s Law and how it operates.
  • Maintain a focus on the end goal while using the measures as a guide only.
  • Reduce bureaucracy and formalism.
  • Use a combination of diversified metrics. A balanced scorecard can be useful here.

Key takeaways:

  • Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
  • Goodhart’s Law was informally coined during a speech by Charles Goodhart. Although the economist was speaking in the context of statistics, the law has broader evaluative applications.
  • Goodhart’s Law is generally categorized into four variations: Regressive Goodhart, Extremal Goodhart, Causal Goodhart, and Adversarial Goodhart.

Connected Business Concepts

Barbell Strategy

A Barbell strategy consists of making sure that 90% of your capital is safe, and using the remaining 10%, or on risky investments. Applied to business strategy, this means having a binary approach. On the one hand, extremely conservative. On the other, extremely aggressive, thus creating a potent mix.

Technological Modeling

Technological modeling is a discipline to provide the basis for companies to sustain innovation, thus developing incremental products. While also looking at breakthrough innovative products that can pave the way for long-term success. In a sort of Barbell Strategy, technological modeling suggests having a two-sided approach, on the one hand, to keep sustaining continuous innovation as a core part of the business model. On the other hand, it places bets on future developments that have the potential to break through and take a leap forward.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

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