Reversal of Risky Choice in a Good versus a Bad World

Einav Hart
Yaakov Kareev,
Judith Avrahami

In many situations one has to choose between risky alternatives, knowing only one's past experience with those alternatives. Such decisions can be made in more - or less - benevolent settings or 'worlds'. In a 'good world', high payoffs are more frequent than low payoffs, and vice versa in a 'bad world'. In two studies, we explored whether the world influences choice behavior: Whether people behave differently in a 'good' versus a 'bad' world. Subjects made repeated, incentivized choices between two gambles, one riskier than the other, neither offering a sure amount. The gambles were held equivalent in terms of their expected value, differing only in variance. Worlds were manipulated both between- and within-subject: In Study 1, each subject experienced one world - good, bad or mediocre; in Study 2, each subject experienced both a good and a bad world. We examine the aggregate pattern of behavior (average choice frequencies), and the dynamics of behavior across time. We observed significant differences in the aggregate pattern: In a good world, subjects tended to choose the riskier alternative, and vice versa in a bad world. The pattern of the dynamics, i.e., the transitions from round to round, were best explained by a reaction to the counterfactual reward: When the unchosen alternative yielded a better payoff, the tendency to subsequently choose it was higher. We compared these two patterns to the predictions of three types of models: Reinforcement learning, regret-based and disappointment-based models. Behavior was in line only with the predictions of regret-based models.

August, 2012