When and why do people avoid unknown probabilities in decisions under uncertainty? Testing some predictions from optimal foraging theory

  • Rode C
  • Cosmides L
  • Hell W
 et al. 
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When given a choice between two otherwise equivalent options - one in which the probability information is stated and another in which it is missing - most people avoid the option with missing probability information (Camerer and Weber, 1992). This robust, frequently replicated tendency is known as the ambiguity effect. It is unclear, however, why the ambiguity effect occurs. Experiments 1 and 2, which separated effects of the comparison process from those related to missing probability information, demonstrate that the ambiguity effect is elicited by missing probabilities rather than by comparison of options. Experiments 3 and 4 test predictions drawn from the literature on behavioral ecology. It is suggested that choices between two options should reflect three parameters: (1) the need of the organism, (2) the mean expected outcome of each option; and (3) the variance associated with each option's outcome. It is hypothesized that unknown probabilities are avoided because they co-occur with high outcome variability. In Experiment 3 it was found that subjects systematically avoid options with high outcome variability regardless of whether probabilities are explicitly stated or not. In Experiment 4, we reversed the ambiguity effect: when participants' need was greater than the known option's expected mean outcome, subjects preferred the ambiguous (high variance) option. From these experiments we conclude that people do not generally avoid ambiguous options. Instead, they take into account expected outcome, outcome variability, and their need in order to arrive at a decision that is most likely to satisfy this need. Copyright (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Ambiguity effect
  • Decision making
  • Optomal foraging theory

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  • Catrin Rode

  • Leda Cosmides

  • Wolfgang Hell

  • John Tooby

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