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Goodhart's Law: When Measures Become Targets

Goodhart's Law: When Measures Become Targets

In the dynamic landscape of business, economics, and personal achievement, metrics and measurements play a crucial role in setting goals and assessing progress. However, an often-overlooked phenomenon can subtly undermine these efforts, leading to unintended consequences. This phenomenon is encapsulated in Goodhart's Law, a principle originating from the world of economics but with far-reaching implications beyond.

What is Goodhart's Law?

Goodhart's Law states:

"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."

At its core, Goodhart's Law highlights a paradox inherent in relying on specific metrics for goal setting or policy-making. Once a metric is identified as a primary indicator of success, its reliability and validity as an unbiased measure can become compromised, often leading to behaviors and strategies that game the system or focus narrowly on hitting specific targets at the expense of broader objectives.

The Impact of Goodhart's Law in Various Domains

Business and Management

In the business (and public education) world, Goodhart's Law manifests through phenomena like "teaching to the test" in employee performance evaluations (and public schools), where employees focus on optimizing their actions to score well on specific performance metrics, potentially neglecting other important aspects of their job. This can lead to a myopic view of performance, where the real, substantive achievements that contribute to a company's success are overshadowed by the pursuit of metric targets.

It's worth noting:

"Not everything that is easily measured is important, and not everything that's important is easily measured." - Steve "ardalis" Smith

Economics and Policy Making

In economics, policymakers might set specific economic indicators (like inflation rates or employment figures) as targets. However, focusing too narrowly on these metrics can lead to policies that achieve these targets in the short term but are detrimental to the economy in the long term.

Personal Goals and Self-Improvement

On a personal level, individuals might set specific goals for themselves, like losing weight or saving a certain amount of money. When these specific measures become the sole focus, it can lead to behavior that achieves these goals in a way that might be harmful or unsustainable in the long term.

Strategies to Mitigate the Effects of Goodhart's Law

To navigate the challenges posed by Goodhart's Law, it's essential to adopt a more holistic approach to setting and evaluating goals:

  • Diversify Metrics: Use a broader set of metrics to capture the complexity of what you're trying to achieve, reducing the likelihood of gaming or optimizing for a single measure.

  • Focus on Processes, Not Just Outcomes: Emphasize the importance of the processes leading to outcomes, not just the outcomes themselves. This approach encourages a more sustainable and ethical path to achieving goals.

  • Continuous Review and Adaptation: Regularly review and adjust goals and metrics to reflect changes in circumstances or insights gained over time, ensuring that they remain relevant and constructive.

  • Cultivate a Culture of Learning: Encourage a culture that values learning and adaptation over merely hitting targets. This fosters an environment where the focus remains on genuine improvement and achievement.


Goodhart's Law serves as a cautionary tale about the limitations of metrics and measurements as indicators of success. By understanding and anticipating the ways in which metrics can lead us astray, individuals, businesses, and policymakers can develop more nuanced, effective strategies for setting and achieving goals. In doing so, we can ensure that our pursuits of excellence and achievement remain grounded in reality, integrity, and a genuine desire for improvement.


Goodhart's Law - [later] I'm pleased to report we're now identifying and replacing hundreds of outdated metrics per hour.


  • Goodhart, C.A.E. (1975). Problems of Monetary Management: The U.K. Experience. In "Papers in Monetary Economics" (Vol. I). Reserve Bank of Australia.
  • Strathern, M. (1997). "Improving ratings": audit in the British University system. European Review, 5(3), 305-321.
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