Expected utility theory

21 July, 2014 at 11:58 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

rabinIn Matthew Rabin’s modern classic Risk Aversion and Expected-Utility Theory: A Calibration Theorem it is forcefully and convincingly shown that expected utility theory does not explain actual behaviour and choices.

What is still surprising, however, is that although the expected utility theory obviously is descriptively inadequate and doesn’t pass the Smell Test, colleagues all over the world gladly continue to use it, as though its deficiencies were unknown or unheard of.

That cannot be the right attitude when facing scientific anomalies. When models are plainly wrong, you’d better replace them!

Rabin writes:

Using expected-utility theory, economists model risk aversion as arising solely because the utility function over wealth is concave. This diminishing-marginal-utility-of-wealth theory of risk aversion is psychologically intuitive, and surely helps explain some of our aversion to large-scale risk: We dislike vast uncertainty in lifetime wealth because a dollar that helps us avoid poverty is more valuable than a dollar that helps us become very rich.

Yet this theory also implies that people are approximately risk neutral when stakes are small. Arrow (1971, p. 100) shows that an expected-utility maximizer with a differentiable utility function will always want to take a sufficiently small stake in any positive-expected-value bet. That is, expected-utility maximizers are (almost everywhere) arbitrarily close to risk neutral when stakes are arbitrarily small. While most economists understand this formal limit result, fewer appreciate that the approximate risk-neutrality prediction holds not just for negligible stakes, but for quite sizable and economically important stakes. Economists often invoke expected-utility theory to explain substantial (observed or posited) risk aversion over stakes where the theory actually predicts virtual risk neutrality.While not broadly appreciated, the inability of expected-utility theory to provide a plausible account of risk aversion over modest stakes has become oral tradition among some subsets of researchers, and has been illustrated in writing in a variety of different contexts using standard utility functions.

In this paper, I reinforce this previous research by presenting a theorem which calibrates a relationship between risk attitudes over small and large stakes. The theorem shows that, within the expected-utility model, anything but virtual risk neutrality over modest stakes implies manifestly unrealistic risk aversion over large stakes. The theorem is entirely ‘‘non-parametric’’, assuming nothing about the utility function except concavity. In the next section I illustrate implications of the theorem with examples of the form ‘‘If an expected-utility maximizer always turns down modest-stakes gamble X, she will always turn down large-stakes gamble Y.’’ Suppose that, from any initial wealth level, a person turns down gambles where she loses $100 or gains $110, each with 50% probability. Then she will turn down 50-50 bets of losing $1,000 or gaining any sum of money. A person who would always turn down 50-50 lose $1,000/gain $1,050 bets would always turn down 50-50 bets of losing $20,000 or gaining any sum. These are implausible degrees of risk aversion. The theorem not only yields implications if we know somebody will turn down a bet for all initial wealth levels. Suppose we knew a risk-averse person turns down 50-50 lose $100/gain $105 bets for any lifetime wealth level less than $350,000, but knew nothing about the degree of her risk aversion for wealth levels above $350,000. Then we know that from an initial wealth level of $340,000 the person will turn down a 50-50 bet of losing $4,000 and gaining $635,670.

The intuition for such examples, and for the theorem itself, is that within the expected-utility framework turning down a modest-stakes gamble means that the marginal utility of money must diminish very quickly for small changes in wealth. For instance, if you reject a 50-50 lose $10/gain $11 gamble because of diminishing marginal utility, it must be that you value the 11th dollar above your current wealth by at most 10/11 as much as you valued the 10th-to-last-dollar of your current wealth.

Iterating this observation, if you have the same aversion to the lose $10/gain $11 bet if you were $21 wealthier, you value the 32nd dollar above your current wealth by at most 10/11 x 10/11 ~ 5/6 as much as your 10th-to-last dollar. You will value your 220th dollar by at most 3/20 as much as your last dollar, and your 880 dollar by at most 1/2000 of your last dollar. This is an absurd rate for the value of money to deteriorate — and the theorem shows the rate of deterioration implied by expected-utility theory is actually quicker than this. Indeed, the theorem is really just an algebraic articulation of how implausible it is that the consumption value of a dollar changes significantly as a function of whether your lifetime wealth is $10, $100, or even $1,000 higher or lower. From such observations we should conclude that aversion to modest-stakes risk has nothing to do with the diminishing marginal utility of wealth.

Expected-utility theory seems to be a useful and adequate model of risk aversion for many purposes, and it is especially attractive in lieu of an equally tractable alternative model. ‘‘Extremelyconcave expected utility’’ may even be useful as a parsimonious tool for modeling aversion to modest-scale risk. But this and previous papers make clear that expected-utility theory is manifestly not close to the right explanation of risk attitudes over modest stakes. Moreover, when the specific structure of expected-utility theory is used to analyze situations involving modest stakes — such as in research that assumes that large-stake and modest-stake risk attitudes derive from the same utility-for-wealth function — it can be very misleading. In the concluding section, I discuss a few examples of such research where the expected-utility hypothesis is detrimentally maintained, and speculate very briefly on what set of ingredients may be needed to provide a better account of risk attitudes. In the next section, I discuss the theorem and illustrate its implications.

Expected-utility theory makes wrong predictions about the relationship between risk aversion over modest stakes and risk aversion over large stakes. Hence, when measuring risk attitudes maintaining the expected-utility hypothesis, differences in estimates of risk attitudes may come from differences in the scale of risk comprising data sets, rather than from differences in risk attitudes of the people being studied. Data sets dominated by modest-risk investment opportunities are likely to yield much higher estimates of risk aversion than data sets dominated by larger-scale investment opportunities. So not only are standard measures of risk aversion somewhat hard to interpret given that people are not expected-utility maximizers, but even attempts to compare risk attitudes so as to compare across groups will be misleading unless economists pay due attention to the theory’s calibrational problems.

Indeed, what is empirically the most firmly established feature of risk preferences, loss aversion, is a departure from expected-utility theory that provides a direct explanation for modest-scale risk aversion. Loss aversion says that people are significantly more averse to losses relative to the status quo than they are attracted by gains, and more generally that people’s utilities are determined by changes in wealth rather than absolute levels. Preferences incorporating loss aversion can reconcile significant small-scale risk aversion with reasonable degrees of large-scale risk aversion … Variants of this or other models of risk attitudes can provide useful alternatives to expected-utility theory that can reconcile plausible risk attitudes over large stakes with non-trivial risk aversion over modest stakes.


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