Peter C. Fishburn

September 2, 1936 – June 10, 2021

Brief Biography

Peter Fishburn Head Shot

Peter C. Fishburn is a John von Neumann Theory Prize recipient who has made significant contributions to the foundations of making choices under uncertainty. Fishburn studied industrial engineering at Pennsylvania State University prior to pursuing graduate degrees at the Case Institute of Technology, where his Ph.D. thesis advisor was Russell Ackoff, a founder of Operations Research. According to Fishburn's wife, theologian Janet Forsythe Fishburn, Ackoff was a strictly hands off advisor. Fishburn wrote his dissertation completely on his own before he completed all his required class work. That dissertation became his first book, Decision and Value Theory (1964). Although most of his published work was theoretical, he did some applied work, while a graduate student, at Anheuser-Busch as part of Ackoff's long running project with Anheuser-Busch on marketing. Following his degree, he worked (1962-1970) for the Research Analysis Corporation in McLean Virginia, spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton NJ, was Research Professor (1971 - 1978) at Penn State, and then he spent 23 years at Bell Labs (Murray Hill, NJ and Florham Park NJ), carrying out research on economics and mathematics.  in 1966 he was a Fulbright Professor at the Technical University in Copenhagen, Denmark.  He published eight books on utility theory and decision making.  

In 1970, Fishburn’s Utility Theory for Decision Making received an honorable mention from the Frederick W. Lanchester Prize selection committee. The text was lauded for its contribution to the advancement of knowledge of a concept at the heart of many complex socio-technological problems. In 1987, the Decision Analysis Society (DAS) presented Fishburn with the third annual Frank P. Ramsey Medal to recognize his contributions to field of decision analysis and the seven books he had written up to that point. Four years later, the DAS named the special Annals of Operations Research issue, “Choice Under Uncertainty” (Vol 9.1), co-edited by Fishburn and Irving H. Lavalle the best publication on decision analysis published in the second preceding calendar year. In 1992, he co-authored an important article on the future of multiple criteria decision making and multiattribute utility theory with James Dyer, Stanley Zionts, Jyrki Wallenius, and Ralph E. Steuer.

His 1983 book, Approval Voting, with political scientist Steven Brams, became a standard reference on this important subject.  Approval voting is similar to traditional "plurality" voting but simpler. You simply delete the instruction "Vote for only one candidate." This work may have been motivated by Fishburn's experience as undergraduate chair of elections at Penn State in 1957-1958, where he learned about election procedures and their various problems.

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) honored Fishburn with the John von Neumann Theory Prize in 1996. He was recognized for his several books and numerous articles that have made contributions to: axiom foundations of linear preference and utility theory, including choice risk under uncertainty, plus axiomatic investigations on subject probability; the theory of measurements; multiattribute preference/utility theory; stochastic dominance and risk analysis; and axiomatic development of nonlinear utility theories under risk. The prize committee pointed to Fishburn’s contributions to group decision making, especially in the voting process, through his books The Theory of Social Choice (1973) and Interprofile Conditions and Impossibility (1987).

In his career, Fishburn published more than 500 articles, including over 80 with co-authors, in a great variety of Mathematics and Operations Research journals.   Nine of the papers were co-authored with Paul Erdos, an incredibly prolific Hungarian mathematician whose many collaborations led to the concept of Erdős number.  The Erdős number measures, via the shortest chain of co-authorship,  the "collaborative distance" between Erdős and other mathematicians - hence Fishburn's Erdős number is 1. 

Fishburn was named a Fellow of INFORMS in 2002.

Other Biographies

Wikipedia Entry for Peter C. Fishburn

Bram S. J., Gehrlein W. V.. and Roberts, F.S. (2009) Preface to The Mathematics of Preference, Choice and Order: Essays in Honor of Peter C. Fishburn,  Springer Verlag, Heidelberg


Pennsylvania State University, BS 1958

Case Institute of Technology, MS 1961

Case Institute of Technology, PhD 1962


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations

Key Interests in OR/MS


Oral Histories

Brams S, Gehrlein W, Roberts F, and Salles M.  (2021). Peter Fishburn, in Fleurby M & Salles M (eds)2021 Conversations on Social Choice and Welfare Theory Vol. 1. pp 165-170.  Springer Verlag

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