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Toward a behavioral theory of real options: Noisy signals, bias, and learning

Hart E. Posen, Michael J. Leiblein and John S. Chen

Strategic Management Journal, 2018, vol. 39, issue 4, 1112-1138

Abstract: Research Summary: We develop a behavioral theory of real options that relaxes the informational and behavioral assumptions underlying applications of financial options theory to real assets. To do so, we augment real option theory's focus on uncertain future asset values (prospective uncertainty) with feedback learning theory that considers uncertain current asset values (contemporaneous uncertainty). This enables us to incorporate behavioral bias in the feedback learning process underlying the option execution/termination decision. The resulting computational model suggests that firms that inappropriately account for contemporaneous uncertainty and are subject to learning biases may experience substantial downside risk in undertaking real options. Moreover, contrary to the standard option result, greater uncertainty may decrease option value, making commitment to an investment path more effective than remaining flexible. Managerial Summary: Executives recognize the need to make uncertain investments to grow their business while mitigating downside risk. The analogy between financial options and real corporate investments provides an appealing method to consider the practical challenge of such investment decisions. Unfortunately, the “real options” analogy seems to break down in practice. We identify how a second form of uncertainty confounds real options intuition, leading managers to overestimate the value of uncertain investments. We present a behavioral real options model that accounts for both forms of uncertainty and suggest how uncertainty interacts with behavioral bias in the option execution/termination decision. Our model facilitates assessment of the conditions under which investments in uncertain opportunities are usefully considered as real options, and provides a means to evaluate their attractiveness.

Date: 2018
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