# Why are humans so bad with probability?

Apr 29 JDN 2458238

In previous posts on deviations from expected utility and cumulative prospect theory, I’ve detailed some of the myriad ways in which human beings deviate from optimal rational behavior when it comes to probability.

This post is going to be a bit different: Yes, we behave irrationally when it comes to probability. Why?

Why aren’t we optimal expected utility maximizers?
This question is not as simple as it sounds. Some of the ways that human beings deviate from neoclassical behavior are simply because neoclassical theory requires levels of knowledge and intelligence far beyond what human beings are capable of; basically anything requiring “perfect information” qualifies, as does any game theory prediction that involves solving extensive-form games with infinite strategy spaces by backward induction. (Don’t feel bad if you have no idea what that means; that’s kind of my point. Solving infinite extensive-form games by backward induction is an unsolved problem in game theory; just this past week I saw a new paper presented that offered a partial potential solutionand yet we expect people to do it optimally every time?)

I’m also not going to include questions of fundamental uncertainty, like “Will Apple stock rise or fall tomorrow?” or “Will the US go to war with North Korea in the next ten years?” where it isn’t even clear how we would assign a probability. (Though I will get back to them, for reasons that will become clear.)

No, let’s just look at the absolute simplest cases, where the probabilities are all well-defined and completely transparent: Lotteries and casino games. Why are we so bad at that?

Lotteries are not a computationally complex problem. You figure out how much the prize is worth to you, multiply it by the probability of winning—which is clearly spelled out for you—and compare that to how much the ticket price is worth to you. The most challenging part lies in specifying your marginal utility of wealth—the “how much it’s worth to you” part—but that’s something you basically had to do anyway, to make any kind of trade-offs on how to spend your time and money. Maybe you didn’t need to compute it quite so precisely over that particular range of parameters, but you need at least some idea how much \$1 versus \$10,000 is worth to you in order to get by in a market economy.

Casino games are a bit more complicated, but not much, and most of the work has been done for you; you can look on the Internet and find tables of probability calculations for poker, blackjack, roulette, craps and more. Memorizing all those probabilities might take some doing, but human memory is astonishingly capacious, and part of being an expert card player, especially in blackjack, seems to involve memorizing a lot of those probabilities.

Furthermore, by any plausible expected utility calculation, lotteries and casino games are a bad deal. Unless you’re an expert poker player or blackjack card-counter, your expected income from playing at a casino is always negative—and the casino set it up that way on purpose.

Why, then, can lotteries and casinos stay in business? Why are we so bad at such a simple problem?

Clearly we are using some sort of heuristic judgment in order to save computing power, and the people who make lotteries and casinos have designed formal models that can exploit those heuristics to pump money from us. (Shame on them, really; I don’t fully understand why this sort of thing is legal.)

In another previous post I proposed what I call “categorical prospect theory”, which I think is a decently accurate description of the heuristics people use when assessing probability (though I’ve not yet had the chance to test it experimentally).

But why use this particular heuristic? Indeed, why use a heuristic at all for such a simple problem?

I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that these simple problems are weird; they are absolutely not the sort of thing a tribe of hunter-gatherers is likely to encounter on the savannah. It doesn’t make sense for our brains to be optimized to solve poker or roulette.

The sort of problems that our ancestors encountered—indeed, the sort of problems that we encounter, most of the time—were not problems of calculable probability risk; they were problems of fundamental uncertainty. And they were frequently matters of life or death (which is why we’d expect them to be highly evolutionarily optimized): “Was that sound a lion, or just the wind?” “Is this mushroom safe to eat?” “Is that meat spoiled?”

In fact, many of the uncertainties most important to our ancestors are still important today: “Will these new strangers be friendly, or dangerous?” “Is that person attracted to me, or am I just projecting my own feelings?” “Can I trust you to keep your promise?” These sorts of social uncertainties are even deeper; it’s not clear that any finite being could ever totally resolve its uncertainty surrounding the behavior of other beings with the same level of intelligence, as the cognitive arms race continues indefinitely. The better I understand you, the better you understand me—and if you’re trying to deceive me, as I get better at detecting deception, you’ll get better at deceiving.

Personally, I think that it was precisely this sort of feedback loop that resulting in human beings getting such ridiculously huge brains in the first place. Chimpanzees are pretty good at dealing with the natural environment, maybe even better than we are; but even young children can outsmart them in social tasks any day. And once you start evolving for social cognition, it’s very hard to stop; basically you need to be constrained by something very fundamental, like, say, maximum caloric intake or the shape of the birth canal. Where chimpanzees look like their brains were what we call an “interior solution”, where evolution optimized toward a particular balance between cost and benefit, human brains look more like a “corner solution”, where the evolutionary pressure was entirely in one direction until we hit up against a hard constraint. That’s exactly what one would expect to happen if we were caught in a cognitive arms race.

What sort of heuristic makes sense for dealing with fundamental uncertainty—as opposed to precisely calculable probability? Well, you don’t want to compute a utility function and multiply by it, because that adds all sorts of extra computation and you have no idea what probability to assign. But you’ve got to do something like that in some sense, because that really is the optimal way to respond.

So here’s a heuristic you might try: Separate events into some broad categories based on how frequently they seem to occur, and what sort of response would be necessary.

Some things, like the sun rising each morning, seem to always happen. So you should act as if those things are going to happen pretty much always, because they do happen… pretty much always.

Other things, like rain, seem to happen frequently but not always. So you should look for signs that those things might happen, and prepare for them when the signs point in that direction.

Still other things, like being attacked by lions, happen very rarely, but are a really big deal when they do. You can’t go around expecting those to happen all the time, that would be crazy; but you need to be vigilant, and if you see any sign that they might be happening, even if you’re pretty sure they’re not, you may need to respond as if they were actually happening, just in case. The cost of a false positive is much lower than the cost of a false negative.

And still other things, like people sprouting wings and flying, never seem to happen. So you should act as if those things are never going to happen, and you don’t have to worry about them.

This heuristic is quite simple to apply once set up: It can simply slot in memories of when things did and didn’t happen in order to decide which category they go in—i.e. availability heuristic. If you can remember a lot of examples of “almost never”, maybe you should move it to “unlikely” instead. If you get a really big number of examples, you might even want to move it all the way to “likely”.

Another large advantage of this heuristic is that by combining utility and probability into one metric—we might call it “importance”, though Bayesian econometricians might complain about that—we can save on memory space and computing power. I don’t need to separately compute a utility and a probability; I just need to figure out how much effort I should put into dealing with this situation. A high probability of a small cost and a low probability of a large cost may be equally worth my time.

How might these heuristics go wrong? Well, if your environment changes sufficiently, the probabilities could shift and what seemed certain no longer is. For most of human history, “people walking on the Moon” would seem about as plausible as sprouting wings and flying away, and yet it has happened. Being attacked by lions is now exceedingly rare except in very specific places, but we still harbor a certain awe and fear before lions. And of course availability heuristic can be greatly distorted by mass media, which makes people feel like terrorist attacks and nuclear meltdowns are common and deaths by car accidents and influenza are rare—when exactly the opposite is true.

How many categories should you set, and what frequencies should they be associated with? This part I’m still struggling with, and it’s an important piece of the puzzle I will need before I can take this theory to experiment. There is probably a trade-off between more categories giving you more precision in tailoring your optimal behavior, but costing more cognitive resources to maintain. Is the optimal number 3? 4? 7? 10? I really don’t know. Even I could specify the number of categories, I’d still need to figure out precisely what categories to assign.

# Experimentally testing categorical prospect theory

Dec 4, JDN 2457727

In last week’s post I presented a new theory of probability judgments, which doesn’t rely upon people performing complicated math even subconsciously. Instead, I hypothesize that people try to assign categories to their subjective probabilities, and throw away all the information that wasn’t used to assign that category.

The way to most clearly distinguish this from cumulative prospect theory is to show discontinuity. Kahneman’s smooth, continuous function places fairly strong bounds on just how much a shift from 0% to 0.000001% can really affect your behavior. In particular, if you want to explain the fact that people do seem to behave differently around 10% compared to 1% probabilities, you can’t allow the slope of the smooth function to get much higher than 10 at any point, even near 0 and 1. (It does depend on the precise form of the function, but the more complicated you make it, the more free parameters you add to the model. In the most parsimonious form, which is a cubic polynomial, the maximum slope is actually much smaller than this—only 2.)

If that’s the case, then switching from 0.% to 0.0001% should have no more effect in reality than a switch from 0% to 0.00001% would to a rational expected utility optimizer. But in fact I think I can set up scenarios where it would have a larger effect than a switch from 0.001% to 0.01%.

Indeed, these games are already quite profitable for the majority of US states, and they are called lotteries.

Rationally, it should make very little difference to you whether your odds of winning the Powerball are 0 (you bought no ticket) or 0.000000001% (you bought a ticket), even when the prize is \$100 million. This is because your utility of \$100 million is nowhere near 100 million times as large as your marginal utility of \$1. A good guess would be that your lifetime income is about \$2 million, your utility is logarithmic, the units of utility are hectoQALY, and the baseline level is about 100,000.

I apologize for the extremely large number of decimals, but I had to do that in order to show any difference at all. I have bolded where the decimals first deviate from the baseline.

Your utility if you don’t have a ticket is ln(20) = 2.9957322736 hQALY.

Your utility if you have a ticket is (1-10^-9) ln(20) + 10^-9 ln(1020) = 2.9957322775 hQALY.

You gain a whopping 40 microQALY over your whole lifetime. I highly doubt you could even perceive such a difference.

And yet, people are willing to pay nontrivial sums for the chance to play such lotteries. Powerball tickets sell for about \$2 each, and some people buy tickets every week. If you do that and live to be 80, you will spend some \$8,000 on lottery tickets during your lifetime, which results in this expected utility: (1-4*10^-6) ln(20-0.08) + 4*10^-6 ln(1020) = 2.9917399955 hQALY.
You have now sacrificed 0.004 hectoQALY, which is to say 0.4 QALY—that’s months of happiness you’ve given up to play this stupid pointless game.

Which shouldn’t be surprising, as (with 99.9996% probability) you have given up four months of your lifetime income with nothing to show for it. Lifetime income of \$2 million / lifespan of 80 years = \$25,000 per year; \$8,000 / \$25,000 = 0.32. You’ve actually sacrificed slightly more than this, which comes from your risk aversion.

Why would anyone do such a thing? Because while the difference between 0 and 10^-9 may be trivial, the difference between “impossible” and “almost impossible” feels enormous. “You can’t win if you don’t play!” they say, but they might as well say “You can’t win if you do play either.” Indeed, the probability of winning without playing isn’t zero; you could find a winning ticket lying on the ground, or win due to an error that is then upheld in court, or be given the winnings bequeathed by a dying family member or gifted by an anonymous donor. These are of course vanishingly unlikely—but so was winning in the first place. You’re talking about the difference between 10^-9 and 10^-12, which in proportional terms sounds like a lot—but in absolute terms is nothing. If you drive to a drug store every week to buy a ticket, you are more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the drug store than you are to win the lottery.

Of course, these are not experimental conditions. So I need to devise a similar game, with smaller stakes but still large enough for people’s brains to care about the “almost impossible” category; maybe thousands? It’s not uncommon for an economics experiment to cost thousands, it’s just usually paid out to many people instead of randomly to one person or nobody. Conducting the experiment in an underdeveloped country like India would also effectively amplify the amounts paid, but at the fixed cost of transporting the research team to India.

But I think in general terms the experiment could look something like this. You are given \$20 for participating in the experiment (we treat it as already given to you, to maximize your loss aversion and endowment effect and thereby give us more bang for our buck). You then have a chance to play a game, where you pay \$X to get a P probability of \$Y*X, and we vary these numbers.

The actual participants wouldn’t see the variables, just the numbers and possibly the rules: “You can pay \$2 for a 1% chance of winning \$200. You can also play multiple times if you wish.” “You can pay \$10 for a 5% chance of winning \$250. You can only play once or not at all.”

So I think the first step is to find some dilemmas, cases where people feel ambivalent, and different people differ in their choices. That’s a good role for a pilot study.

Then we take these dilemmas and start varying their probabilities slightly.

In particular, we try to vary them at the edge of where people have mental categories. If subjective probability is continuous, a slight change in actual probability should never result in a large change in behavior, and furthermore the effect of a change shouldn’t vary too much depending on where the change starts.

But if subjective probability is categorical, these categories should have edges. Then, when I present you with two dilemmas that are on opposite sides of one of the edges, your behavior should radically shift; while if I change it in a different way, I can make a large change without changing the result.

Based solely on my own intuition, I guessed that the categories roughly follow this pattern:

Impossible: 0%

Almost impossible: 0.1%

Very unlikely: 1%

Unlikely: 10%

Fairly unlikely: 20%

Roughly even odds: 50%

Fairly likely: 80%

Likely: 90%

Very likely: 99%

Almost certain: 99.9%

Certain: 100%

So for example, if I switch from 0%% to 0.01%, it should have a very large effect, because I’ve moved you out of your “impossible” category (indeed, I think the “impossible” category is almost completely sharp; literally anything above zero seems to be enough for most people, even 10^-9 or 10^-10). But if I move from 1% to 2%, it should have a small effect, because I’m still well within the “very unlikely” category. Yet the latter change is literally one hundred times larger than the former. It is possible to define continuous functions that would behave this way to an arbitrary level of approximation—but they get a lot less parsimonious very fast.

Now, immediately I run into a problem, because I’m not even sure those are my categories, much less that they are everyone else’s. If I knew precisely which categories to look for, I could tell whether or not I had found it. But the process of both finding the categories and determining if their edges are truly sharp is much more complicated, and requires a lot more statistical degrees of freedom to get beyond the noise.

One thing I’m considering is assigning these values as a prior, and then conducting a series of experiments which would adjust that prior. In effect I would be using optimal Bayesian probability reasoning to show that human beings do not use optimal Bayesian probability reasoning. Still, I think that actually pinning down the categories would require a large number of participants or a long series of experiments (in frequentist statistics this distinction is vital; in Bayesian statistics it is basically irrelevant—one of the simplest reasons to be Bayesian is that it no longer bothers you whether someone did 2 experiments of 100 people or 1 experiment of 200 people, provided they were the same experiment of course). And of course there’s always the possibility that my theory is totally off-base, and I find nothing; a dissertation replicating cumulative prospect theory is a lot less exciting (and, sadly, less publishable) than one refuting it.

Still, I think something like this is worth exploring. I highly doubt that people are doing very much math when they make most probabilistic judgments, and using categories would provide a very good way for people to make judgments usefully with no math at all.

# How do people think about probability?

Nov 27, JDN 2457690

(This topic was chosen by vote of my Patreons.)

In neoclassical theory, it is assumed (explicitly or implicitly) that human beings judge probability in something like the optimal Bayesian way: We assign prior probabilities to events, and then when confronted with evidence we infer using the observed data to update our prior probabilities to posterior probabilities. Then, when we have to make decisions, we maximize our expected utility subject to our posterior probabilities.

This, of course, is nothing like how human beings actually think. Even very intelligent, rational, numerate people only engage in a vague approximation of this behavior, and only when dealing with major decisions likely to affect the course of their lives. (Yes, I literally decide which universities to attend based upon formal expected utility models. Thus far, I’ve never been dissatisfied with a decision made that way.) No one decides what to eat for lunch or what to do this weekend based on formal expected utility models—or at least I hope they don’t, because that point the computational cost far exceeds the expected benefit.

So how do human beings actually think about probability? Well, a good place to start is to look at ways in which we systematically deviate from expected utility theory.

A classic example is the Allais paradox. See if it applies to you.

In game A, you get \$1 million dollars, guaranteed.
In game B, you have a 10% chance of getting \$5 million, an 89% chance of getting \$1 million, but now you have a 1% chance of getting nothing.

Which do you prefer, game A or game B?

In game C, you have an 11% chance of getting \$1 million, and an 89% chance of getting nothing.

In game D, you have a 10% chance of getting \$5 million, and a 90% chance of getting nothing.

Which do you prefer, game C or game D?

I have to think about it for a little bit and do some calculations, and it’s still very hard because it depends crucially on my projected lifetime income (which could easily exceed \$3 million with a PhD, especially in economics) and the precise form of my marginal utility (I think I have constant relative risk aversion, but I’m not sure what parameter to use precisely), but in general I think I want to choose game A and game C, but I actually feel really ambivalent, because it’s not hard to find plausible parameters for my utility where I should go for the gamble.

But if you’re like most people, you choose game A and game D.

There is no coherent expected utility by which you would do this.

Why? Either a 10% chance of \$5 million instead of \$1 million is worth risking a 1% chance of nothing, or it isn’t. If it is, you should play B and D. If it’s not, you should play A and C. I can’t tell you for sure whether it is worth it—I can’t even fully decide for myself—but it either is or it isn’t.

Yet most people have a strong intuition that they should take game A but game D. Why? What does this say about how we judge probability?
The leading theory in behavioral economics right now is cumulative prospect theory, developed by the great Kahneman and Tversky, who essentially founded the field of behavioral economics. It’s quite intimidating to try to go up against them—which is probably why we should force ourselves to do it. Fear of challenging the favorite theories of the great scientists before us is how science stagnates.

I wrote about it more in a previous post, but as a brief review, cumulative prospect theory says that instead of judging based on a well-defined utility function, we instead consider gains and losses as fundamentally different sorts of thing, and in three specific ways:

First, we are loss-averse; we feel a loss about twice as intensely as a gain of the same amount.

Second, we are risk-averse for gains, but risk-seeking for losses; we assume that gaining twice as much isn’t actually twice as good (which is almost certainly true), but we also assume that losing twice as much isn’t actually twice as bad (which is almost certainly false and indeed contradictory with the previous).

Third, we judge probabilities as more important when they are close to certainty. We make a large distinction between a 0% probability and a 0.0000001% probability, but almost no distinction at all between a 41% probability and a 43% probability.

That last part is what I want to focus on for today. In Kahneman’s model, this is a continuous, monotonoic function that maps 0 to 0 and 1 to 1, but systematically overestimates probabilities below but near 1/2 and systematically underestimates probabilities above but near 1/2.

It looks something like this, where red is true probability and blue is subjective probability:

I don’t believe this is actually how humans think, for two reasons:

1. It’s too hard. Humans are astonishingly innumerate creatures, given the enormous processing power of our brains. It’s true that we have some intuitive capacity for “solving” very complex equations, but that’s almost all within our motor system—we can “solve a differential equation” when we catch a ball, but we have no idea how we’re doing it. But probability judgments are often made consciously, especially in experiments like the Allais paradox; and the conscious brain is terrible at math. It’s actually really amazing how bad we are at math. Any model of normal human judgment should assume from the start that we will not do complicated math at any point in the process. Maybe you can hypothesize that we do so subconsciously, but you’d better have a good reason for assuming that.
2. There is no reason to do this. Why in the world would any kind of optimization system function this way? You start with perfectly good probabilities, and then instead of using them, you subject them to some bizarre, unmotivated transformation that makes them less accurate and costs computing power? You may as well hit yourself in the head with a brick.

So, why might it look like we are doing this? Well, my proposal, admittedly still rather half-baked, is that human beings don’t assign probabilities numerically at all; we assign them categorically.

You may call this, for lack of a better term, categorical prospect theory.

My theory is that people don’t actually have in their head “there is an 11% chance of rain today” (unless they specifically heard that from a weather report this morning); they have in their head “it’s fairly unlikely that it will rain today”.

That is, we assign some small number of discrete categories of probability, and fit things into them. I’m not sure what exactly the categories are, and part of what makes my job difficult here is that they may be fuzzy-edged and vary from person to person, but roughly speaking, I think they correspond to the sort of things psychologists usually put on Likert scales in surveys: Impossible, almost impossible, very unlikely, unlikely, fairly unlikely, roughly even odds, fairly likely, likely, very likely, almost certain, certain. If I’m putting numbers on these probability categories, they go something like this: 0, 0.001, 0.01, 0.10, 0.20, 0.50, 0.8, 0.9, 0.99, 0.999, 1.

Notice that this would preserve the same basic effect as cumulative prospect theory: You care a lot more about differences in probability when they are near 0 or 1, because those are much more likely to actually shift your category. Indeed, as written, you wouldn’t care about a shift from 0.4 to 0.6 at all, despite caring a great deal about a shift from 0.001 to 0.01.

How does this solve the above problems?

1. It’s easy. Not only don’t you compute a probability and then recompute it for no reason; you never even have to compute it precisely. Just get it within some vague error bounds and that will tell you what box it goes in. Instead of computing an approximation to a continuous function, you just slot things into a small number of discrete boxes, a dozen at the most.
2. That explains why we would do it: It’s easy. Our brains need to conserve their capacity, and they did especially in our ancestral environment when we struggled to survive. Rather than having to iterate your approximation to arbitrary precision, you just get within 0.1 or so and call it a day. That saves time and computing power, which saves energy, which could save your life.

What new problems have I introduced?

1. It’s very hard to know exactly where people’s categories are, if they vary between individuals or even between situations, and whether they are fuzzy-edged.
2. If you take the model I just gave literally, even quite large probability changes will have absolutely no effect as long as they remain within a category such as “roughly even odds”.

With regard to 2, I think Kahneman may himself be able to save me, with his dual process theory concept of System 1 and System 2. What I’m really asserting is that System 1, the fast, intuitive judgment system, operates on these categories. System 2, on the other hand, the careful, rational thought system, can actually make use of proper numerical probabilities; it’s just very costly to boot up System 2 in the first place, much less ensure that it actually gets the right answer.

How might we test this? Well, I think that people are more likely to use System 1 when any of the following are true:

1. They are under harsh time-pressure
2. The decision isn’t very important
3. The intuitive judgment is fast and obvious

And conversely they are likely to use System 2 when the following are true:

1. They have plenty of time to think
2. The decision is very important
3. The intuitive judgment is difficult or unclear

So, it should be possible to arrange an experiment varying these parameters, such that in one treatment people almost always use System 1, and in another they almost always use System 2. And then, my prediction is that in the System 1 treatment, people will in fact not change their behavior at all when you change the probability from 15% to 25% (fairly unlikely) or 40% to 60% (roughly even odds).

To be clear, you can’t just present people with this choice between game E and game F:

Game E: You get a 60% chance of \$50, and a 40% chance of nothing.

Game F: You get a 40% chance of \$50, and a 60% chance of nothing.

People will obviously choose game E. If you can directly compare the numbers and one game is strictly better in every way, I think even without much effort people will be able to choose correctly.

Instead, what I’m saying is that if you make the following offers to two completely different sets of people, you will observe little difference in their choices, even though under expected utility theory you should.
Group I receives a choice between game E and game G:

Game E: You get a 60% chance of \$50, and a 40% chance of nothing.

Game G: You get a 100% chance of \$20.

Group II receives a choice between game F and game G:

Game F: You get a 40% chance of \$50, and a 60% chance of nothing.

Game G: You get a 100% chance of \$20.

Under two very plausible assumptions about marginal utility of wealth, I can fix what the rational judgment should be in each game.

The first assumption is that marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, so people are risk-averse (at least for gains, which these are). The second assumption is that most people’s lifetime income is at least two orders of magnitude higher than \$50.

By the first assumption, group II should choose game G. The expected income is precisely the same, and being even ever so slightly risk-averse should make you go for the guaranteed \$20.

By the second assumption, group I should choose game E. Yes, there is some risk, but because \$50 should not be a huge sum to you, your risk aversion should be small and the higher expected income of \$30 should sway you.

But I predict that most people will choose game G in both cases, and (within statistical error) the same proportion will choose F as chose E—thus showing that the difference between a 40% chance and a 60% chance was in fact negligible to their intuitive judgments.

However, this doesn’t actually disprove Kahneman’s theory; perhaps that part of the subjective probability function is just that flat. For that, I need to set up an experiment where I show discontinuity. I need to find the edge of a category and get people to switch categories sharply. Next week I’ll talk about how we might pull that off.

# Prospect Theory: Why we buy insurance and lottery tickets

JDN 2457061 PST 14:18.

Today’s topic is called prospect theory. Prospect theory is basically what put cognitive economics on the map; it was the knock-down argument that Kahneman used to show that human beings are not completely rational in their economic decisions. It all goes back to a 1979 paper by Kahneman and Tversky that now has 34000 citations (yes, we’ve been having this argument for a rather long time now). In the 1990s it was refined into cumulative prospect theory, which is more mathematically precise but basically the same idea.

What was that argument? People buy both insurance and lottery tickets.

The “both” is very important. Buying insurance can definitely be rational—indeed, typically is. Buying lottery tickets could theoretically be rational, under very particular circumstances. But they cannot both be rational at the same time.

To see why, let’s talk some more about marginal utility of wealth. Recall that a dollar is not worth the same to everyone; to a billionaire a dollar is a rounding error, to most of us it is a bottle of Coke, but to a starving child in Ghana it could be life itself. We typically observe diminishing marginal utility of wealth—the more money you have, the less another dollar is worth to you.

If we sketch a graph of your utility versus wealth it would look something like this:

Notice how it increases as your wealth increases, but at a rapidly diminishing rate.

If you have diminishing marginal utility of wealth, you are what we call risk-averse. If you are risk-averse, you’ll (sometimes) want to buy insurance. Let’s suppose the units on that graph are tens of thousands of dollars. Suppose you currently have an income of \$50,000. You are offered the chance to pay \$10,000 a year to buy unemployment insurance, so that if you lose your job, instead of making \$10,000 on welfare you’ll make \$30,000 on unemployment. You think you have about a 20% chance of losing your job.

If you had constant marginal utility of wealth, this would not be a good deal for you. Your expected value of money would be reduced if you buy the insurance: Before you had an 80% chance of \$50,000 and a 20% chance of \$10,000 so your expected amount of money is \$42,000. With the insurance you have an 80% chance of \$40,000 and a 20% chance of \$30,000 so your expected amount of money is \$38,000. Why would you take such a deal? That’s like giving up \$4,000 isn’t it?

Well, let’s look back at that utility graph. At \$50,000 your utility is 1.80, uh… units, er… let’s say QALY. 1.80 QALY per year, meaning you live 80% better than the average human. Maybe, I guess? Doesn’t seem too far off. In any case, the units of measurement aren’t that important.

By buying insurance your effective income goes down to \$40,000 per year, which lowers your utility to 1.70 QALY. That’s a fairly significant hit, but it’s not unbearable. If you lose your job (20% chance), you’ll fall down to \$30,000 and have a utility of 1.55 QALY. Again, noticeable, but bearable. Your overall expected utility with insurance is therefore 1.67 QALY.

But what if you don’t buy insurance? Well then you have a 20% chance of taking a big hit and falling all the way down to \$10,000 where your utility is only 1.00 QALY. Your expected utility is therefore only 1.64 QALY. You’re better off going with the insurance.

And this is how insurance companies make a profit (well; the legitimate way anyway; they also like to gouge people and deny cancer patients of course); on average, they make more from each customer than they pay out, but customers are still better off because they are protected against big losses. In this case, the insurance company profits \$4,000 per customer per year, customers each get 30 milliQALY per year (about the same utility as an extra \$2,000 more or less), everyone is happy.

But if this is your marginal utility of wealth—and it most likely is, approximately—then you would never want to buy a lottery ticket. Let’s suppose you actually have pretty good odds; it’s a 1 in 1 million chance of \$1 million for a ticket that costs \$2. This means that the state is going to take in about \$2 million for every \$1 million they pay out to a winner.

That’s about as good as your odds for a lottery are ever going to get; usually it’s more like a 1 in 400 million chance of \$150 million for \$1, which is an even bigger difference than it sounds, because \$150 million is nowhere near 150 times as good as \$1 million. It’s a bit better from the state’s perspective though, because they get to receive \$400 million for every \$150 million they pay out.

For your convenience I have zoomed out the graph so that you can see 100, which is an income of \$1 million (which you’ll have this year if you win; to get it next year, you’ll have to play again). You’ll notice I did not have to zoom out the vertical axis, because 20 times as much money only ends up being about 2 times as much utility. I’ve marked with lines the utility of \$50,000 (1.80, as we said before) versus \$1 million (3.30).

What about the utility of \$49,998 which is what you’ll have if you buy the ticket and lose? At this number of decimal places you can’t see the difference, so I’ll need to go out a few more. At \$50,000 you have 1.80472 QALY. At \$49,998 you have 1.80470 QALY. That \$2 only costs you 0.00002 QALY, 20 microQALY. Not much, really; but of course not, it’s only \$2.

How much does the 1 in 1 million chance of \$1 million give you? Even less than that. Remember, the utility gain for going from \$50,000 to \$1 million is only 1.50 QALY. So you’re adding one one-millionth of that in expected utility, which is of course 1.5 microQALY, or 0.0000015 QALY.

That \$2 may not seem like it’s worth much, but that 1 in 1 million chance of \$1 million is worth less than one tenth as much. Again, I’ve tried to make these figures fairly realistic; they are by no means exact (I don’t actually think \$49,998 corresponds to exactly 1.804699 QALY), but the order of magnitude difference is right. You gain about ten times as much utility from spending that \$2 on something you want than you do on taking the chance at \$1 million.

I said before that it is theoretically possible for you to have a utility function for which the lottery would be rational. For that you’d need to have increasing marginal utility of wealth, so that you could be what we call risk-seeking. Your utility function would have to look like this:

There’s no way marginal utility of wealth looks like that. This would be saying that it would hurt Bill Gates more to lose \$1 than it would hurt a starving child in Ghana, which makes no sense at all. (It certainly would makes you wonder why he’s so willing to give it to them.) So frankly even if we didn’t buy insurance the fact that we buy lottery tickets would already look pretty irrational.

But in order for it to be rational to buy both lottery tickets and insurance, our utility function would have to be totally nonsensical. Maybe it could look like this or something; marginal utility decreases normally for awhile, and then suddenly starts going upward again for no apparent reason:

Clearly it does not actually look like that. Not only would this mean that Bill Gates is hurt more by losing \$1 than the child in Ghana, we have this bizarre situation where the middle class are the people who have the lowest marginal utility of wealth in the world. Both the rich and the poor would need to have higher marginal utility of wealth than we do. This would mean that apparently yachts are just amazing and we have no idea. Riding a yacht is the pinnacle of human experience, a transcendence beyond our wildest imaginings; and riding a slightly bigger yacht is even more amazing and transcendent. Love and the joy of a life well-lived pale in comparison to the ecstasy of adding just one more layer of gold plate to your Ferrari collection.

Where increasing marginal utility is ridiculous, this is outright special pleading. You’re just making up bizarre utility functions that perfectly line up with whatever behavior people happen to have so that you can still call it rational. It’s like saying, “It could be perfectly rational! Maybe he enjoys banging his head against the wall!”

Kahneman and Tversky had a better idea. They realized that human beings aren’t so great at assessing probability, and furthermore tend not to think in terms of total amounts of wealth or annual income at all, but in terms of losses and gains. Through a series of clever experiments they showed that we are not so much risk-averse as we are loss-averse; we are actually willing to take more risk if it means that we will be able to avoid a loss.

In effect, we seem to be acting as if our utility function looks like this, where the zero no longer means “zero income”, it means “whatever we have right now“:

We tend to weight losses about twice as much as gains, and we tend to assume that losses also diminish in their marginal effect the same way that gains do. That is, we would only take a 50% chance to lose \$1000 if it meant a 50% chance to gain \$2000; but we’d take a 10% chance at losing \$10,000 to save ourselves from a guaranteed loss of \$1000.

This can explain why we buy insurance, provided that you frame it correctly. One of the things about prospect theory—and about human behavior in general—is that it exhibits framing effects: The answer we give depends upon the way you ask the question. That’s so totally obviously irrational it’s honestly hard to believe that we do it; but we do, and sometimes in really important situations. Doctors—doctors—will decide a moral dilemma differently based on whether you describe it as “saving 400 out of 600 patients” or “letting 200 out of 600 patients die”.

In this case, you need to frame insurance as the default option, and not buying insurance as an extra risk you are taking. Then saving money by not buying insurance is a gain, and therefore less important, while a higher risk of a bad outcome is a loss, and therefore important.

If you frame it the other way, with not buying insurance as the default option, then buying insurance is taking a loss by making insurance payments, only to get a gain if the insurance pays out. Suddenly the exact same insurance policy looks less attractive. This is a big part of why Obamacare has been effective but unpopular. It was set up as a fine—a loss—if you don’t buy insurance, rather than as a bonus—a gain—if you do buy insurance. The latter would be more expensive, but we could just make it up by taxing something else; and it might have made Obamacare more popular, because people would see the government as giving them something instead of taking something away. But the fine does a better job of framing insurance as the default option, so it motivates more people to actually buy insurance.

But even that would still not be enough to explain how it is rational to buy lottery tickets (Have I mentioned how it’s really not a good idea to buy lottery tickets?), because buying a ticket is a loss and winning the lottery is a gain. You actually have to get people to somehow frame not winning the lottery as a loss, making winning the default option despite the fact that it is absurdly unlikely. But I have definitely heard people say things like this: “Well if my numbers come up and I didn’t play that week, how would I feel then?” Pretty bad, I’ll grant you. But how much you wanna bet that never happens? (They’ll bet… the price of the ticket, apparently.)

In order for that to work, people either need to dramatically overestimate the probability of winning, or else ignore it entirely. Both of those things totally happen.

First, we overestimate the probability of rare events and underestimate the probability of common events—this is actually the part that makes it cumulative prospect theory instead of just regular prospect theory. If you make a graph of perceived probability versus actual probability, it looks like this:

We don’t make much distinction between 40% and 60%, even though that’s actually pretty big; but we make a huge distinction between 0% and 0.00001% even though that’s actually really tiny. I think we basically have categories in our heads: “Never, almost never, rarely, sometimes, often, usually, almost always, always.” Moving from 0% to 0.00001% is going from “never” to “almost never”, but going from 40% to 60% is still in “often”. (And that for some reason reminded me of “Well, hardly ever!”)

But that’s not even the worst of it. After all that work to explain how we can make sense of people’s behavior in terms of something like a utility function (albeit a distorted one), I think there’s often a simpler explanation still: Regret aversion under total neglect of probability.

Neglect of probability is self-explanatory: You totally ignore the probability. But what’s regret aversion, exactly? Unfortunately I’ve had trouble finding any good popular sources on the topic; it’s all scholarly stuff. (Maybe I’m more cutting-edge than I thought!)

The basic idea that is that you minimize regret, where regret can be formalized as the difference in utility between the outcome you got and the best outcome you could have gotten. In effect, it doesn’t matter whether something is likely or unlikely; you only care how bad it is.

This explains insurance and lottery tickets in one fell swoop: With insurance, you have the choice of risking a big loss (big regret) which you can avoid by paying a small amount (small regret). You take the small regret, and buy insurance. With lottery tickets, you have the chance of getting a large gain (big regret if you don’t) which you gain by paying a small amount (small regret).

This can also explain why a typical American’s fears go in the order terrorists > Ebola > sharks > > cars > cheeseburgers, while the actual risk of dying goes in almost the opposite order, cheeseburgers > cars > > terrorists > sharks > Ebola. (Terrorists are scarier than sharks and Ebola and actually do kill more Americans! Yay, we got something right! Other than that it is literally reversed.)

Dying from a terrorist attack would be horrible; in addition to your own death you have all the other likely deaths and injuries, and the sheer horror and evil of the terrorist attack itself. Dying from Ebola would be almost as bad, with gruesome and agonizing symptoms. Dying of a shark attack would be still pretty awful, as you get dismembered alive. But dying in a car accident isn’t so bad; it’s usually over pretty quick and the event seems tragic but ordinary. And dying of heart disease and diabetes from your cheeseburger overdose will happen slowly over many years, you’ll barely even notice it coming and probably die rapidly from a heart attack or comfortably in your sleep. (Wasn’t that a pleasant paragraph? But there’s really no other way to make the point.)

If we try to estimate the probability at all—and I don’t think most people even bother—it isn’t by rigorous scientific research; it’s usually by availability heuristic: How many examples can you think of in which that event happened? If you can think of a lot, you assume that it happens a lot.

And that might even be reasonable, if we still lived in hunter-gatherer tribes or small farming villages and the 150 or so people you knew were the only people you ever heard about. But now that we have live TV and the Internet, news can get to us from all around the world, and the news isn’t trying to give us an accurate assessment of risk, it’s trying to get our attention by talking about the biggest, scariest, most exciting things that are happening around the world. The amount of news attention an item receives is in fact in inverse proportion to the probability of its occurrence, because things are more exciting if they are rare and unusual. Which means that if we are estimating how likely something is based on how many times we heard about it on the news, our estimates are going to be almost exactly reversed from reality. Ironically it is the very fact that we have more information that makes our estimates less accurate, because of the way that information is presented.

It would be a pretty boring news channel that spent all day saying things like this: “82 people died in car accidents today, and 1657 people had fatal heart attacks, 11.8 million had migraines, and 127 million played the lottery and lost; in world news, 214 countries did not go to war, and 6,147 children starved to death in Africa…” This would, however, be vastly more informative.

Perhaps then we can make prospect theory wrong by making ourselves more rational.

# The winner-takes-all effect

JDN 2457054 PST 14:06.

As I write there is some sort of mariachi band playing on my front lawn. It is actually rather odd that I have a front lawn, since my apartment is set back from the road; yet there is the patch of grass, and there is the band playing upon it. This sort of thing is part of the excitement of living in a large city (and Long Beach would seem like a large city were it not right next to the sprawling immensity that is Los Angeles—there are more people in Long Beach than in Cleveland, but there are more people in greater Los Angeles than in Sweden); with a certain critical mass of human beings comes unexpected pieces of culture.

The fact that people agglomerate in this way is actually relevant to today’s topic, which is what I will call the winner-takes-all effect. I actually just finished reading a book called The Winner-Take-All Society, which is particularly horrifying to read because it came out in 1996. That’s almost twenty years ago, and things were already bad; and since then everything it describes has only gotten worse.

What is the winner-takes-all effect? It is the simple fact that in competitive capitalist markets, a small difference in quality can yield an enormous difference in return. The third most popular soda drink company probably still makes drinks that are pretty good, but do you have any idea what it is? There’s Coke, there’s Pepsi, and then there’s… uh… Dr. Pepper, apparently! But I didn’t know that before today and I bet you didn’t either. Now think about what it must be like to be the 15th most popular soda drink company, or the 37th. That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

I don’t generally follow football, but since tomorrow is the Super Bowl I feel some obligation to use that example as well. The highest-paid quarterback is Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, who is signing onto a five-year contract worth \$110 million (\$22 million a year). In annual income that will make him pass Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears who has a seven-year contract worth \$127 million (\$18.5 million a year). This shift may have something to do with the fact that the Seahawks are in the Super Bowl this year and the Bears are not (they haven’t since 2007). Now consider what life is like for most football players; the median income of football players is most likely zero (at least as far as football-related income), and the median income of NFL players—the cream of the crop already—is \$770,000; that’s still very good money of course (more than Krugman makes, actually! But he could make more, if he were willing to sell out to Wall Street), but it’s barely 1/30 of what Wilson is going to be making. To make that million-dollar salary, you need to be the best, of the best, of the best (sir!). That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

To go back to the example of cities, it is for similar reasons that the largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi) become packed with tens of millions of people while others (Long Beach, Ann Arbor, Cleveland) get hundreds of thousands and most (Petoskey, Ketchikan, Heber City, and hundreds of others you’ve never heard of) get only a few thousand. Beyond that there are thousands of tiny little hamlets that many don’t even consider cities. The median city probably has about 10,000 people in it, and that only because we’d stop calling it a city if it fell below 1,000. If we include every tiny little village, the median town size is probably about 20 people. Meanwhile the largest city in the world is Tokyo, with a greater metropolitan area that holds almost 38 million people—or to put it another way almost exactly as many people as California. Huh, LA doesn’t seem so big now does it? How big is a typical town? Well, that’s the thing about this sort of power-law distribution; the concept of “typical” or “average” doesn’t really apply anymore. Each little piece of the distribution has basically the same shape as the whole distribution, so there isn’t a “typical” size or scale. That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

As they freely admit in the book, it isn’t literally that a single winner takes everything. That is the theoretical maximum level of wealth inequality, and fortunately no society has ever quite reached it. The closest we get in today’s society is probably Saudi Arabia, which recently lost its king—and yes I do mean king in the fullest sense of the word, a man of virtually unlimited riches and near-absolute power. His net wealth was estimated at \$18 billion, which frankly sounds low; still even if that’s half the true amount it’s oddly comforting to know that he is still not quite as rich as Bill Gates (\$78 billion), who earned his wealth at least semi-legitimately in a basically free society. Say what you will about intellectual property rents and market manipulation—and you know I do—but they are worlds away from what Abdullah’s family did, which was literally and directly robbed from millions of people by the power of the sword. Mostly he just inherited all that, and he did implement some minor reforms, but make no mistake: He was ruthless and by no means willing to give up his absolute power—he beheaded dozens of political dissidents, for example. Saudi Arabia does spread their wealth around a little, such that basically no one is below the UN poverty lines of \$1.25 and \$2 per day, but about a fourth of the population is below the national poverty line—which is just about the same distribution of wealth as what we have in the US, which actually makes me wonder just how free and legitimate our markets really are.

The winner-takes-all effect would really be more accurately described as the “top small fraction takes the vast majority” effect, but that isn’t nearly as catchy, now is it?

There are several different causes that can all lead to this same result. In the book, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that we should not attribute the cause to market manipulation, but in fact to the natural functioning of competitive markets. There’s something to be said for this—I used to buy the whole idea that competitive markets are the best, but increasingly I’ve been seeing ways that less competitive markets can make better overall outcomes.

Where they lose me is in arguing that the skyrocketing compensation packages for CEOs are due to their superior performance, and corporations are just being rational in competing for the best CEOs. If that were true, we wouldn’t find that the rank correlation between the CEO’s pay and the company’s stock performance is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Actually even a small positive correlation wouldn’t prove that the CEOs are actually performing well; it could just be that companies that perform well are willing to pay their CEOs more—and stock option compensation will do this automatically. But in fact the correlation is so tiny as to be negligible; corporations would be better off hiring a random person off the street and paying them \$50,000 for all the CEO does for their stock performance. If you adjust for the size of the company, you find that having a higher-paid CEO is positively related to performance for small startups, but negatively correlated for large well-established corporations. No, clearly there’s something going on here besides competitive pay for high performance—corruption comes to mind, which you’ll remember was the subject of my master’s thesis.

But in some cases there isn’t any apparent corruption, and yet we still see these enormously unequal distributions of income. Another good example of this is the publishing industry, in which J.K. Rowling can make over \$1 billion (she donated enough to charity to officially lose her billionaire status) but most authors make little or nothing, particularly those who can’t get published in the first place. I have no reason to believe that J.K. Rowling acquired this massive wealth by corruption; she just sold an awful lot of booksover 100 million of the first Harry Potter book alone.

But why would she be able to sell 100 million while thousands of authors write books that are probably just as good or nearly so make nothing? Am I just bitter and envious, as Mitt Romney would say? Is J.K. Rowling actually a million times as good an author as I am?

Obviously not, right? She may be better, but she’s not that much better. So how is it that she ends up making a million times as much as I do from writing? It feels like squaring the circle: How can markets be efficient and competitive, yet some people are being paid millions of times as others despite being only slightly more productive?

The answer is simple but enormously powerful: positive feedback.Once you start doing well, it’s easier to do better. You have what economists call an economy of scale. The first 10,000 books sold is the hardest; then the next 10,000 is a little easier; the next 10,000 a little easier still. In fact I suspect that in many cases the first 10% growth is harder than the second 10% growth and so on—which is actually a much stronger claim. For my sales to grow 10% I’d need to add like 20 people. For J.K. Rowling’s sales to grow 10% she’d need to add 10 million. Yet it might actually be easier for J.K. Rowling to add 10 million than for me to add 20. If not, it isn’t much harder. Suppose we tried by just sending out enticing tweets. I have about 100 Twitter followers, so I’d need 0.2 sales per follower; she has about 4 million, so she’d need an average of 2.5 sales per follower. That’s an advantage for me, percentage-wise—but if we have the same uptake rate I sell 20 books and she sells 800,000.

Languages are also like this, which is why I can write this post in English and yet people can still read it around the world. English is the winner of the language competition (we call it the lingua franca, as weird as that is—French is not the lingua franca anymore). The losers are those hundreds of New Guinean languages you’ve never heard of, many of which are dying. And their distribution obeys, once again, a power-law. (Individual words actually obey a power-law as well, which makes this whole fractal business delightfully ever more so.)
Network externalities are not the only way that the winner-takes-all effect can occur, though I think it is the most common. You can also have economies of scale from the supply side, particularly in the case of information: Recording a song is a lot of time and effort, but once you record a song, it’s trivial to make more copies of it. So that first recording costs a great deal, while every subsequent recording costs next to nothing. This is probably also at work in the case of J.K. Rowling and the NFL; the two phenomena are by no means mutually exclusive. But clearly the sizes of cities are due to network externalities: It’s quite expensive to live in a big city—no supply-side economy of scale—but you want to live in a city where other people live because that’s where friends and family and opportunities are.

The most worrisome kind of winner-takes-all effect is what Frank and Cook call deep pockets: Once you have concentration of wealth in a few hands, those few individuals can now choose their own winners in a much more literal sense: the rich can commission works of art from their favorite artists, exacerbating the inequality among artists; worse yet they can use their money to influence politicians (as the Kochs are planning on spending \$900 million—\$3 for every person in America—to do in 2016) and exacerbate the inequality in the whole system. That gives us even more positive feedback on top of all the other positive feedbacks.

Sure enough, if you run the standard neoclassical economic models of competition and just insert the assumption of economies of scale, the result is concentration of wealth—in fact, if nothing about the rules prevents it, the result is a complete monopoly. Nor is this result in any sense economically efficient; it’s just what naturally happens in the presence of economies of scale.

Frank and Cook seem most concerned about the fact that these winner-take-all incomes will tend to push too many people to seek those careers, leaving millions of would-be artists, musicians and quarterbacks with dashed dreams when they might have been perfectly happy as electrical engineers or high school teachers. While this may be true—next week I’ll go into detail about prospect theory and why human beings are terrible at making judgments based on probability—it isn’t really what I’m most concerned about. For all the cost of frustrated ambition there is also a good deal of benefit; striving for greatness does not just make the world better if we succeed, it can make ourselves better even if we fail. I’d strongly encourage people to have backup plans; but I’m not going to tell people to stop painting, singing, writing, or playing football just because they’re unlikely to make a living at it. The one concern I do have is that the competition is so fierce that we are pressured to go all in, to not have backup plans, to use performance-enhancing drugs—they may carry awful risks, but they also work. And it’s probably true, actually, that you’re a bit more likely to make it all the way to the top if you don’t have a backup plan. You’re also vastly more likely to end up at the bottom. Is raising your probability of being a bestselling author from 0.00011% to 0.00012% worth giving up all other career options? Skipping chemistry class to practice football may improve your chances of being an NFL quarterback from 0.000013% to 0.000014%, but it will also drop your chances of being a chemical engineer from 95% (a degree in chemical engineering almost guarantees you a job eventually) to more like 5% (it’s hard to get a degree when you flunk all your classes).

Frank and Cook offer a solution that I think is basically right; they call it positional arms control agreements. By analogy with arms control agreements between nations—and what is war, if not the ultimate winner-takes-all contest?—they propose that we use taxation and regulation policy to provide incentives to make people compete less fiercely for the top positions. Some of these we already do: Performance-enhancing drugs are banned in professional sports, for instance. Even where there are no regulations, we can use social norms: That’s why it’s actually a good thing that your parents rarely support your decision to drop out of school and become a movie star.

That’s yet another reason why progressive taxation is a good idea, as if we needed another; by paring down those top incomes it makes the prospect of winning big less enticing. If NFL quarterbacks only made 10 times what chemical engineers make instead of 300 times, people would be a lot more hesitant to give up on chemical engineering to become a quarterback. If top Wall Street executives only made 50 times what normal people make instead of 5000, people with physics degrees might go back to actually being physicists instead of speculating on stock markets.

There is one case where we might not want fewer people to try, and that is entrepreneurship. Most startups fail, and only a handful go on to make mind-bogglingly huge amounts of money (often for no apparent reason, like the Snuggie and Flappy Bird), yet entrepreneurship is what drives the dynamism of a capitalist economy. We need people to start new businesses, and right now they do that mainly because of a tiny chance of a huge benefit. Yet we don’t want them to be too unrealistic in their expectations: Entrepreneurs are much more optimistic than the general population, but the most successful entrepreneurs are a bit less optimistic than other entrepreneurs. The most successful strategy is to be optimistic but realistic; this outperforms both unrealistic optimism and pessimism. That seems pretty intuitive; you have to be confident you’ll succeed, but you can’t be totally delusional. Yet it’s precisely the realistic optimists who are most likely to be disincentivized by a reduction in the top prizes.

Here’s my solution: Let’s change it from a tiny change of a huge benefit to a large chance of a moderately large benefit. Let’s reward entrepreneurs for trying—with standards for what constitutes a really serious, good attempt rather than something frivolous that was guaranteed to fail. Use part of the funds from the progressive tax as a fund for angel grants, provided to a large number of the most promising entrepreneurs. It can’t be a million-dollar prize for the top 100. It needs to be more like a \$50,000 prize for the top 100,000 (which would cost \$5 billion a year, affordable for the US government). It should be paid at the proposal phase; the top 100,000 business plans receive the funding and are under no obligation to repay it. It has to be enough money that someone can rationally commit themselves to years of dedicated work without throwing themselves into poverty, and it has to be confirmed money so that they don’t have to worry about throwing themselves into debt. As for the upper limit, it only needs to be small enough that there is still an incentive for the business to succeed; but even with a 99% tax Mark Zuckerberg would still be a millionaire, so the rewards for success are high indeed.

The good news is that we actually have such a system to some extent. For research scientists rather than entrepreneurs, NSF grants are pretty close to what I have in mind, but at present they are a bit too competitive: 8,000 research grants with a median of \$130,000 each and a 20% acceptance rate isn’t quite enough people—the acceptance rate should be higher, since most of these proposals are quite worthy. Still, it’s close, and definitely a much better incentive system than what we have for entrepreneurs; there are almost 12 million entrepreneurs in the United States, starting 6 million businesses a year, 75% of which fail before they can return their venture capital. Those that succeed have incomes higher than the general population, with a median income of around \$70,000 per year, but most of this is accounted for by the fact that entrepreneurs are more educated and talented than the general population. Once you factor that in, successful entrepreneurs have about 50% more income on average, but their standard deviation of income is also 60% higher—so some are getting a lot and some are getting very little. Since 75% fail, we’re talking about a 25% chance of entering an income distribution that’s higher on average but much more variable, and a 75% chance of going through a period with little or no income at all—is it worth it? Maybe, maybe not. But if you could get a guaranteed \$50,000 for having a good idea—and let me be clear, only serious proposals that have a good chance of success should qualify—that deal sounds an awful lot better.

# How do we measure happiness?

JDN 2457028 EST 20:33.

No, really, I’m asking. I strongly encourage my readers to offer in the comments any ideas they have about the measurement of happiness in the real world; this has been a stumbling block in one of my ongoing research projects.

In one sense the measurement of happiness—or more formally utility—is absolutely fundamental to economics; in another it’s something most economists are astonishingly afraid of even trying to do.

The basic question of economics has nothing to do with money, and is really only incidentally related to “scarce resources” or “the production of goods” (though many textbooks will define economics in this way—apparently implying that a post-scarcity economy is not an economy). The basic question of economics is really this: How do we make people happy?

This must always be the goal in any economic decision, and if we lose sight of that fact we can make some truly awful decisions. Other goals may work sometimes, but they inevitably fail: If you conceive of the goal as “maximize GDP”, then you’ll try to do any policy that will increase the amount of production, even if that production comes at the expense of stress, injury, disease, or pollution. (And doesn’t that sound awfully familiar, particularly here in the US? 40% of Americans report their jobs as “very stressful” or “extremely stressful”.) If you were to conceive of the goal as “maximize the amount of money”, you’d print money as fast as possible and end up with hyperinflation and total economic collapse ala Zimbabwe. If you were to conceive of the goal as “maximize human life”, you’d support methods of increasing population to the point where we had a hundred billion people whose lives were barely worth living. Even if you were to conceive of the goal as “save as many lives as possible”, you’d find yourself investing in whatever would extend lifespan even if it meant enormous pain and suffering—which is a major problem in end-of-life care around the world. No, there is one goal and one goal only: Maximize happiness.

I suppose technically it should be “maximize utility”, but those are in fact basically the same thing as long as “happiness” is broadly conceived as eudaimoniathe joy of a life well-lived—and not a narrow concept of just adding up pleasure and subtracting out pain. The goal is not to maximize the quantity of dopamine and endorphins in your brain; the goal is to achieve a world where people are safe from danger, free to express themselves, with friends and family who love them, who participate in a world that is just and peaceful. We do not want merely the illusion of these things—we want to actually have them. So let me be clear that this is what I mean when I say “maximize happiness”.

The challenge, therefore, is how we figure out if we are doing that. Things like money and GDP are easy to measure; but how do you measure happiness?
Early economists like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill tried to deal with this question, and while they were not very successful I think they deserve credit for recognizing its importance and trying to resolve it. But sometime around the rise of modern neoclassical economics, economists gave up on the project and instead sought a narrower task, to measure preferences.

This is often called technically ordinal utility, as opposed to cardinal utility; but this terminology obscures the fundamental distinction. Cardinal utility is actual utility; ordinal utility is just preferences.

(The notion that cardinal utility is defined “up to a linear transformation” is really an eminently trivial observation, and it shows just how little physics the physics-envious economists really understand. All we’re talking about here is units of measurement—the same distance is 10.0 inches or 25.4 centimeters, so is distance only defined “up to a linear transformation”? It’s sometimes argued that there is no clear zero—like Fahrenheit and Celsius—but actually it’s pretty clear to me that there is: Zero utility is not existing. So there you go, now you have Kelvin.)

Preferences are a bit easier to measure than happiness, but not by as much as most economists seem to think. If you imagine a small number of options, you can just put them in order from most to least preferred and there you go; and we could imagine asking someone to do that, or—the technique of revealed preferenceuse the choices they make to infer their preferences by assuming that when given the choice of X and Y, choosing X means you prefer X to Y.

Like much of neoclassical theory, this sounds good in principle and utterly collapses when applied to the real world. Above all: How many options do you have? It’s not easy to say, but the number is definitely huge—and both of those facts pose serious problems for a theory of preferences.

The fact that it’s not easy to say means that we don’t have a well-defined set of choices; even if Y is theoretically on the table, people might not realize it, or they might not see that it’s better even though it actually is. Much of our cognitive effort in any decision is actually spent narrowing the decision space—when deciding who to date or where to go to college or even what groceries to buy, simply generating a list of viable options involves a great deal of effort and extremely complex computation. If you have a true utility function, you can satisficechoosing the first option that is above a certain threshold—or engage in constrained optimizationchoosing whether to continue searching or accept your current choice based on how good it is. Under preference theory, there is no such “how good it is” and no such thresholds. You either search forever or choose a cutoff arbitrarily.

Even if we could decide how many options there are in any given choice, in order for this to form a complete guide for human behavior we would need an enormous amount of information. Suppose there are 10 different items I could have or not have; then there are 10! = 3.6 million possible preference orderings. If there were 100 items, there would be 100! = 9e157 possible orderings. It won’t do simply to decide on each item whether I’d like to have it or not. Some things are complements: I prefer to have shoes, but I probably prefer to have \$100 and no shoes at all rather than \$50 and just a left shoe. Other things are substitutes: I generally prefer eating either a bowl of spaghetti or a pizza, rather than both at the same time. No, the combinations matter, and that means that we have an exponentially increasing decision space every time we add a new option. If there really is no more structure to preferences than this, we have an absurd computational task to make even the most basic decisions.

This is in fact most likely why we have happiness in the first place. Happiness did not emerge from a vacuum; it evolved by natural selection. Why make an organism have feelings? Why make it care about things? Wouldn’t it be easier to just hard-code a list of decisions it should make? No, on the contrary, it would be exponentially more complex. Utility exists precisely because it is more efficient for an organism to like or dislike things by certain amounts rather than trying to define arbitrary preference orderings. Adding a new item means assigning it an emotional value and then slotting it in, instead of comparing it to every single other possibility.

To illustrate this: I like Coke more than I like Pepsi. (Let the flame wars begin?) I also like getting massages more than I like being stabbed. (I imagine less controversy on this point.) But the difference in my mind between massages and stabbings is an awful lot larger than the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Yet according to preference theory (“ordinal utility”), that difference is not meaningful; instead I have to say that I prefer the pair “drink Pepsi and get a massage” to the pair “drink Coke and get stabbed”. There’s no such thing as “a little better” or “a lot worse”; there is only what I prefer over what I do not prefer, and since these can be assigned arbitrarily there is an impossible computational task before me to make even the most basic decisions.

Real utility also allows you to make decisions under risk, to decide when it’s worth taking a chance. Is a 50% chance of \$100 worth giving up a guaranteed \$50? Probably. Is a 50% chance of \$10 million worth giving up a guaranteed \$5 million? Not for me. Maybe for Bill Gates. How do I make that decision? It’s not about what I prefer—I do in fact prefer \$10 million to \$5 million. It’s about how much difference there is in terms of my real happiness—\$5 million is almost as good as \$10 million, but \$100 is a lot better than \$50. My marginal utility of wealth—as I discussed in my post on progressive taxation—is a lot steeper at \$50 than it is at \$5 million. There’s actually a way to use revealed preferences under risk to estimate true (“cardinal”) utility, developed by Von Neumann and Morgenstern. In fact they proved a remarkably strong theorem: If you don’t have a cardinal utility function that you’re maximizing, you can’t make rational decisions under risk. (In fact many of our risk decisions clearly aren’t rational, because we aren’t actually maximizing an expected utility; what we’re actually doing is something more like cumulative prospect theory, the leading cognitive economic theory of risk decisions. We overrespond to extreme but improbable events—like lightning strikes and terrorist attacks—and underrespond to moderate but probable events—like heart attacks and car crashes. We play the lottery but still buy health insurance. We fear Ebola—which has never killed a single American—but not influenza—which kills 10,000 Americans every year.)

A lot of economists would argue that it’s “unscientific”—Kenneth Arrow said “impossible”—to assign this sort of cardinal distance between our choices. But assigning distances between preferences is something we do all the time. Amazon.com lets us vote on a 5-star scale, and very few people send in error reports saying that cardinal utility is meaningless and only preference orderings exist. In 2000 I would have said “I like Gore best, Nader is almost as good, and Bush is pretty awful; but of course they’re all a lot better than the Fascist Party.” If we had simply been able to express those feelings on the 2000 ballot according to a range vote, either Nader would have won and the United States would now have a three-party system (and possibly a nationalized banking system!), or Gore would have won and we would be a decade ahead of where we currently are in preventing and mitigating global warming. Either one of these things would benefit millions of people.

This is extremely important because of another thing that Arrow said was “impossible”—namely, “Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem”. It should be called Arrow’s Range Voting Theorem, because simply by restricting preferences to a well-defined utility and allowing people to make range votes according to that utility, we can fulfill all the requirements that are supposedly “impossible”. The theorem doesn’t say—as it is commonly paraphrased—that there is no fair voting system; it says that range voting is the only fair voting system. A better claim is that there is no perfect voting system, which is true if you mean that there is no way to vote strategically that doesn’t accurately reflect your true beliefs. The Myerson-Satterthwaithe Theorem is then the proper theorem to use; if you could design a voting system that would force you to reveal your beliefs, you could design a market auction that would force you to reveal your optimal price. But the least expressive way to vote in a range vote is to pick your favorite and give them 100% while giving everyone else 0%—which is identical to our current plurality vote system. The worst-case scenario in range voting is our current system.

But the fact that utility exists and matters, unfortunately doesn’t tell us how to measure it. The current state-of-the-art in economics is what’s called “willingness-to-pay”, where we arrange (or observe) decisions people make involving money and try to assign dollar values to each of their choices. This is how you get disturbing calculations like “the lives lost due to air pollution are worth \$10.2 billion.”

Why are these calculations disturbing? Because they have the whole thing backwards—people aren’t valuable because they are worth money; money is valuable because it helps people. It’s also really bizarre because it has to be adjusted for inflation. Finally—and this is the point that far too few people appreciate—the value of a dollar is not constant across people. Because different people have different marginal utilities of wealth, something that I would only be willing to pay \$1000 for, Bill Gates might be willing to pay \$1 million for—and a child in Africa might only be willing to pay \$10, because that is all he has to spend. This makes the “willingness-to-pay” a basically meaningless concept independent of whose wealth we are spending.

Utility, on the other hand, might differ between people—but, at least in principle, it can still be added up between them on the same scale. The problem is that “in principle” part: How do we actually measure it?

So far, the best I’ve come up with is to borrow from public health policy and use the QALY, or quality-adjusted life year. By asking people macabre questions like “What is the maximum number of years of your life you would give up to not have a severe migraine every day?” (I’d say about 20—that’s where I feel ambivalent. At 10 I definitely would; at 30 I definitely wouldn’t.) or “What chance of total paralysis would you take in order to avoid being paralyzed from the waist down?” (I’d say about 20%.) we assign utility values: 80 years of migraines is worth giving up 20 years to avoid, so chronic migraine is a quality of life factor of 0.75. Total paralysis is 5 times as bad as paralysis from the waist down, so if waist-down paralysis is a quality of life factor of 0.90 then total paralysis is 0.50.

You can probably already see that there are lots of problems: What if people don’t agree? What if due to framing effects the same person gives different answers to slightly different phrasing? Some conditions will directly bias our judgments—depression being the obvious example. How many years of your life would you give up to not be depressed? Suicide means some people say all of them. How well do we really know our preferences on these sorts of decisions, given that most of them are decisions we will never have to make? It’s difficult enough to make the actual decisions in our lives, let alone hypothetical decisions we’ve never encountered.

Another problem is often suggested as well: How do we apply this methodology outside questions of health? Does it really make sense to ask you how many years of your life drinking Coke or driving your car is worth?
Well, actually… it better, because you make that sort of decision all the time. You drive instead of staying home, because you value where you’re going more than the risk of dying in a car accident. You drive instead of walking because getting there on time is worth that additional risk as well. You eat foods you know aren’t good for you because you think the taste is worth the cost. Indeed, most of us aren’t making most of these decisions very well—maybe you shouldn’t actually drive or drink that Coke. But in order to know that, we need to know how many years of your life a Coke is worth.

As a very rough estimate, I figure you can convert from willingness-to-pay to QALY by dividing by your annual consumption spending Say you spend annually about \$20,000—pretty typical for a First World individual. Then \$1 is worth about 50 microQALY, or about 26 quality-adjusted life-minutes. Now suppose you are in Third World poverty; your consumption might be only \$200 a year, so \$1 becomes worth 5 milliQALY, or 1.8 quality-adjusted life-days. The very richest individuals might spend as much as \$10 million on consumption, so \$1 to them is only worth 100 nanoQALY, or 3 quality-adjusted life-seconds.

That’s an extremely rough estimate, of course; it assumes you are in perfect health, all your time is equally valuable and all your purchasing decisions are optimized by purchasing at marginal utility. Don’t take it too literally; based on the above estimate, an hour to you is worth about \$2.30, so it would be worth your while to work for even \$3 an hour. Here’s a simple correction we should probably make: if only a third of your time is really usable for work, you should expect at least \$6.90 an hour—and hey, that’s a little less than the US minimum wage. So I think we’re in the right order of magnitude, but the details have a long way to go.

So let’s hear it, readers: How do you think we can best measure happiness?