# Glorifying superstars glorifies excessive risk

Apr 26 JDN 2458964

Suppose you were offered the choice of the following two gambles; which one would you take?

Gamble A: 99.9% chance of \$0; 0.1% chance of \$100 million

Gamble B: 10% chance of \$50,000; 80% chance of \$100,000; 10% chance of \$1 million

I think it’s pretty clear that you should choose gamble B.

If you were risk-neutral, the expected payoffs would be \$100,000 for gamble A and \$185,000 for gamble B. So clearly gamble B is the better deal.

But you’re probably risk-averse. If you have logarithmic utility with a baseline and current wealth of \$10,000, the difference is even larger:

0.001*ln(10001) = 0.009

0.1*ln(6) + 0.8*ln(11) + 0.1*ln(101) = 2.56

Yet suppose this is a gamble that a lot of people get to take. And furthermore suppose that what you read about in the news every day is always the people who are the very richest. Then you will read, over and over again, about people who took gamble A and got lucky enough to get the \$100 million. You’d probably start to wonder if maybe you should be taking gamble A instead.

This is more or less the world we live in. A handful of billionaires own staggering amounts of wealth, and we are constantly hearing about them. Even aside from the fact that most of them inherited a large portion of it and all of them had plenty of advantages that most of us will never have, it’s still not clear that they were actually smart about taking the paths they did—it could simply be that they got spectacularly lucky.

Or perhaps there’s an even clearer example: Professional athletes. The vast majority of athletes make basically no money at sports. Even most paid athletes are in minor leagues and make only a modest living.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being an amateur who plays sports for fun. But if you were to invest a large proportion of your time training in sports in the hopes of becoming a professional athlete, you would most likely find yourself gravely disappointed, as your chances of actually getting into the major leagues and becoming a multi-millionaire are exceedingly small. Yet you can probably name at least a few major league athletes who are multi-millionaires—perhaps dozens, if you’re a serious fan—and I doubt you can name anywhere near as many minor league players or players who never made it into paid leagues in the first place.

When we spend all of our time focused on the superstars, what we are effectively assessing is the maximum possible income available on a given career track. And it’s true; the maximum for professional athletes and especially entrepreneurs is extremely high. But the maximum isn’t what you should care about; you should really be concerned about the average or even the median.

And it turns out that the same professions that offer staggeringly high incomes at the very top also tend to be professions with extremely high risk attached. The average income for an athlete is very small; the median is almost certainly zero. Entrepreneurs do better; their average and median income aren’t too much worse than most jobs. But this moderate average comes with a great deal of risk; yes, you could become a billionaire—but far more likely, you could become bankrupt.

This is a deeply perverse result: The careers that our culture most glorifies, the ones that we inspire people to dream about, are precisely those that are the most likely to result in financial ruin.

Realizing this changes your perspective on a lot of things. For instance, there is a common lament that teachers aren’t paid the way professional athletes are. I for one am extremely grateful that this is the case. If teachers were paid like athletes, yes, 0.1% would be millionaires, but only 4.9% would make a decent living, and the remaining 95% would be utterly broke. Indeed, this is precisely what might happen if MOOCs really take off, and a handful of superstar teachers are able to produce all the content while the vast majority of teaching mostly amounts to showing someone else’s slideshows. Teachers are much better off in a world where they almost all make a decent living even though none of them ever get spectacularly rich. (Are many teachers still underpaid? Sure. How do I know this? Because there are teacher shortages. A chronic shortage of something is a surefire sign that its price is too low.) And clearly the idea that we could make all teachers millionaires is just ludicrous: Do you want to pay \$1 million a year for your child’s education?

Is there a way that we could change this perverse pattern? Could we somehow make it feel more inspiring to choose a career that isn’t so risky? Well, I doubt we’ll ever get children to dream of being accountants or middle managers. But there are a wide range of careers that are fulfilling and meaningful while still making a decent living—like, well, teaching. Even working in creative arts can be like this: While very few authors are millionaires, the median income for an author is quite respectable. (On the other hand there’s some survivor bias here: We don’t count you as an author if you can’t get published at all.) Software engineers are generally quite satisfied with their jobs, and they manage to get quite high incomes with low risk. I think the real answer here is to spend less time glorifying obscene hoards of wealth and more time celebrating lives that are rich and meaningful.

I don’t know if Jeff Bezos is truly happy. But I do know that you and I are more likely to be happy if instead of trying to emulate him, we focus on making our own lives meaningful.

# What would a new macroeconomics look like?

Dec 9 JDN 2458462

In previous posts I have extensively criticized the current paradigm of macroeconomics. But it’s always easier to tear the old edifice down than to build a better one in its place. So in this post I thought I’d try to be more constructive: What sort of new directions could macroeconomics take?

The most important change we need to make is to abandon the assumption of dynamic optimization. This will be a very hard sell, as most macroeconomists have become convinced that the Lucas Critique means we need to always base everything on the dynamic optimization of a single representative agent. I don’t think this was actually what Lucas meant (though maybe we should ask him; he’s still at Chicago), and I certainly don’t think it is what he should have meant. He had a legitimate point about the way macroeconomics was operating at that time: It was ignoring the feedback loops that occur when we start trying to change policies.

Goodhart’s Law is probably a better formulation: Once you make an indicator into a target, you make it less effective as an indicator. So while inflation does seem to be negatively correlated with unemployment, that doesn’t mean we should try to increase inflation to extreme levels in order to get rid of unemployment; sooner or later the economy is going to adapt and we’ll just have both inflation and unemployment at the same time. (Campbell’s Law provides a specific example that I wish more people in the US understood: Test scores would be a good measure of education if we didn’t use them to target educational resources.)

The reason we must get rid of dynamic optimization is quite simple: No one behaves that way.

It’s often computationally intractable even in our wildly oversimplified models that experts spend years working onnow you’re imagining that everyone does this constantly?

The most fundamental part of almost every DSGE model is the Euler equation; this equation comes directly from the dynamic optimization. It’s supposed to predict how people will choose to spend and save based upon their plans for an infinite sequence of future income and spending—and if this sounds utterly impossible, that’s because it is. Euler equations don’t fit the data at all, and even extreme attempts to save them by adding a proliferation of additional terms have failed. (It reminds me very much of the epicycles that astronomers used to add to the geocentric model of the universe to try to squeeze in weird results like Mars, before they had the heliocentric model.)

We should instead start over: How do people actually choose their spending? Well, first of all, it’s not completely rational. But it’s also not totally random. People spend on necessities before luxuries; they try to live within their means; they shop for bargains. There is a great deal of data from behavioral economics that could be brought to bear on understanding the actual heuristics people use in deciding how to spend and save. There have already been successful policy interventions using this knowledge, like Save More Tomorrow.

The best thing about this is that it should make our models simpler. We’re no longer asking each agent in the model to solve an impossible problem. However people actually make these decisions, we know it can be done, because it is being done. Most people don’t really think that hard, even when they probably should; so the heuristics really can’t be that complicated. My guess is that you can get a good fit—certainly better than an Euler equation—just by assuming that people set a target for how much they’re going to save (which is also probably pretty small for most people), and then spend the rest.

The second most important thing we need to add is inequality. Some people are much richer than others; this is a very important fact about economics that we need to understand. Yet it has taken the economics profession decades to figure this out, and even now I’m only aware of one class of macroeconomic models that seriously involves inequality, the Heterogeneous Agent New Keynesian (HANK) models which didn’t emerge until the last few years (the earliest publication I can find is 2016!). And these models are monsters; they are almost always computationally intractable and have a huge number of parameters to estimate.

Understanding inequality will require more parameters, that much is true. But if we abandon dynamic optimization, we won’t need as many as the HANK models have, and most of the new parameters are actually things we can observe, like the distribution of wages and years of schooling.

Observability of parameters is a big deal. Another problem with the way the Lucas Critique has been used is that we’ve been told we need to be using “deep structural parameters” like the temporal elasticity of substitution and the coefficient of relative risk aversion—but we have no idea what those actually are. We can’t observe them, and all of our attempts to measure them indirectly have yielded inconclusive or even inconsistent results. This is probably because these parameters are based on assumptions about human rationality that are simply not realistic. Most people probably don’t have a well-defined temporal elasticity of substitution, because their day-to-day decisions simply aren’t consistent enough over time for that to make sense. Sometimes they eat salad and exercise; sometimes they loaf on the couch and drink milkshakes. Likewise with risk aversion: many moons ago I wrote about how people will buy both insurance and lottery tickets, which no one with a consistent coefficient of relative risk aversion would ever do.

So if we are interested in deep structural parameters, we need to base those parameters on behavioral experiments so that we can understand actual human behavior. And frankly I don’t think we need deep structural parameters; I think this is a form of greedy reductionism, where we assume that the way to understand something is always to look at smaller pieces. Sometimes the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Economists obviously feel a lot of envy for physics; but they don’t seem to understand that aerodynamics would never have (ahem) gotten off the ground if we had first waited for an exact quantum mechanical solution of the oxygen atom (which we still don’t have, by the way). Macroeconomics may not actually need “microfoundations” in the strong sense that most economists intend; it needs to be consistent with small-scale behavior, but it doesn’t need to be derived from small-scale behavior.

This means that the new paradigm in macroeconomics does not need to be computationally intractable. Using heuristics instead of dynamic optimization and worrying less about microfoundations will make the models simpler; adding inequality need not make them so much more complicated.

# The Cognitive Science of Morality Part II: Molly Crockett

JDN 2457140 EDT 20:16.

This weekend has been very busy for me, so this post is going to be shorter than most—which is probably a good thing anyway, since my posts tend to run a bit long.

In an earlier post I discussed the Weinberg Cognitive Science Conference and my favorite speaker in the lineup, Joshua Greene. After a brief interlude from Capybara Day, it’s now time to talk about my second-favorite speaker, Molly Crockett. (Is it just me, or does the name “Molly” somehow seem incongruous with a person of such prestige?)

Molly Crockett is a neuroeconomist, though you’d never hear her say that. She doesn’t think of herself as an economist at all, but purely as a neuroscientist. I suspect this is because when she hears the word “economist” she thinks of only mainstream neoclassical economists, and she doesn’t want to be associated with such things.

Still, what she studies is clearly neuroeconomics—I in fact first learned of her work by reading the textbook Neuroeconomics, though I really got interested in her work after watching her TED Talk. It’s one of the better TED talks (they put out so many of them now that the quality is mixed at best); she talks about news reporting on neuroscience, how it is invariably ridiculous and sensationalist. This is particularly frustrating because of how amazing and important neuroscience actually is.

I could almost forgive the sensationalism if they were talking about something that’s actually fantastically boring, like, say, tax codes, or financial regulations. Of course, even then there is the Oliver Effect: You can hide a lot of evil by putting it in something boring. But Dodd-Frank is 2300 pages long; I read an earlier draft that was only (“only”) 600 pages, and it literally contained a three-page section explaining how to define the word “bank”. (Assuming direct proportionality, I would infer that there is now a twelve-page section defining the word “bank”. Hopefully not?) It doesn’t get a whole lot more snoozeworthy than that. So if you must be a bit sensationalist in order to get people to see why eliminating margin requirements and the swaps pushout rule are terrible, terrible ideas, so be it.

But neuroscience is not boring, and so sensationalism only means that news outlets are making up exciting things that aren’t true instead of saying the actually true things that are incredibly exciting.

Here, let me express without sensationalism what Molly Crockett does for a living: Molly Crockett experimentally determines how psychoactive drugs modulate moral judgments. The effects she observes are small, but they are real; and since these experiments are done using small doses for a short period of time, if these effects scale up they could be profound. This is the basic research component—when it comes to technological fruition it will be literally A Clockwork Orange. But it may be A Clockwork Orange in the best possible way: It could be, at last, a medical cure for psychopathy, a pill to make us not just happier or healthier, but better. We are not there yet by any means, but this is clearly the first step: Molly Crockett is to A Clockwork Orange roughly as Michael Faraday is to the Internet.

In one of the experiments she talked about at the conference, Crockett found that serotonin reuptake inhibitors enhance harm aversion. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors are very commonly used drugs—you are likely familiar with one called Prozac. So basically what this study means is that Prozac makes people more averse to causing pain in themselves or others. It doesn’t necessarily make them more altruistic, let alone more ethical; but it does make them more averse to causing pain. (To see the difference, imagine a 19th-century field surgeon dealing with a wounded soldier; there is no anesthetic, but an amputation must be made. Sometimes being ethical requires causing pain.)

The experiment is actually what Crockett calls “the honest Milgram Experiment“; under Milgram, the experimenters told their subjects they would be causing shocks, but no actual shocks were administered. Under Crockett, the shocks are absolutely 100% real (though they are restricted to a much lower voltage of course). People are given competing offers that contain an amount of money and a number of shocks to be delivered, either to you or to the other subject. They decide how much it’s worth to them to bear the shocks—or to make someone else bear them. It’s a classic willingness-to-pay paradigm, applied to the Milgram Experiment.

What Crockett found did not surprise me, nor do I expect it will surprise you if you imagine yourself in the same place; but it would totally knock the socks off of any neoclassical economist. People are much more willing to bear shocks for money than they are to give shocks for money. They are what Crockett terms hyper-altruistic; I would say that they are exhibiting an apparent solidarity coefficient greater than 1. They seem to be valuing others more than they value themselves.

Normally I’d say that this makes no sense at all—why would you value some random stranger more than yourself? Equally perhaps, and obviously only a psychopath would value them not at all; but more? And there’s no way you can actually live this way in your daily life; you’d give away all your possessions and perhaps even starve yourself to death. (I guess maybe Jesus lived that way.) But Crockett came up with a model that explains it pretty well: We are morally risk-averse. If we knew we were dealing with someone very strong who had no trouble dealing with shocks, we’d be willing to shock them a fairly large amount. But we might actually be dealing with someone very vulnerable who would suffer greatly; and we don’t want to take that chance.

I think there’s some truth to that. But her model leaves something else out that I think is quite important: We are also averse to unfairness. We don’t like the idea of raising one person while lowering another. (Obviously not so averse as to never do it—we do it all the time—but without a compelling reason we consider it morally unjustified.) So if the two subjects are in roughly the same condition (being two undergrads at Oxford, they probably are), then helping one while hurting the other is likely to create inequality where none previously existed. But if you hurt yourself in order to help yourself, no such inequality is created; all you do is raise yourself up, provided that you do believe that the money is good enough to be worth the shocks. It’s actually quite Rawslian; lifting one person up while not affecting the other is exactly the sort of inequality you’re allowed to create according to the Difference Principle.

There’s also the fact that the subjects can’t communicate; I think if I could make a deal to share the money afterward, I’d feel better about shocking someone more in order to get us both more money. So perhaps with communication people would actually be willing to shock others more. (And the sensation headline would of course be: “Talking makes people hurt each other.”)

But all of these ideas are things that could be tested in future experiments! And maybe I’ll do those experiments someday, or Crockett, or one of her students. And with clever experimental paradigms we might find out all sorts of things about how the human mind works, how moral intuitions are structured, and ultimately how chemical interventions can actually change human moral behavior. The potential for both good and evil is so huge, it’s both wondrous and terrifying—but can you deny that it is exciting?

And that’s not even getting into the Basic Fact of Cognitive Science, which undermines all concepts of afterlife and theistic religion. I already talked about it before—as the sort of thing that I sort of wish I could say when I introduce myself as a cognitive scientist—but I think it bears repeating.

As Patricia Churchland said on the Colbert Report: Colbert asked, “Are you saying I have no soul?” and she answered, “Yes.” I actually prefer Daniel Dennett’s formulation: “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.”

We don’t have a magical, supernatural soul (whatever that means); we don’t have an immortal soul that will rise into Heaven or be reincarnated in someone else. But we do have something worth preserving: We have minds that are capable of consciousness. We love and hate, exalt and suffer, remember and imagine, understand and wonder. And yes, we are born and we die. Once the unique electrochemical pattern that defines your consciousness is sufficiently degraded, you are gone. Nothing remains of what you were—except perhaps the memories of others, or things you have created. But even this legacy is unlikely to last forever. One day it is likely that all of us—and everything we know, and everything we have built, from the Great Pyramids to Hamlet to Beethoven’s Ninth to Principia Mathematica to the US Interstate Highway System—will be gone. I don’t have any consolation to offer you on that point; I can’t promise you that anything will survive a thousand years, much less a million. There is a chance—even a chance that at some point in the distant future, whatever humanity has become will find a way to reverse the entropic decay of the universe itself—but nothing remotely like a guarantee. In all probability you, and I, and all of this will be gone someday, and that is absolutely terrifying.

But it is also undeniably true. The fundamental link between the mind and the brain is one of the basic facts of cognitive science; indeed I like to call it The Basic Fact of Cognitive Science. We know specifically which kinds of brain damage will make you unable to form memories, comprehend language, speak language (a totally different area), see, hear, smell, feel anger, integrate emotions with logic… do I need to go on? Everything that you are is done by your brain—because you are your brain.

Now why can’t the science journalists write about that? Instead we get “The Simple Trick That Can Boost Your Confidence Immediately” and “When it Comes to Picking Art, Men & Women Just Don’t See Eye to Eye.” HuffPo is particularly awful of course; the New York Times is better, but still hardly as good as one might like. They keep trying to find ways to make it exciting—but so rarely seem to grasp how exciting it already is.

# 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.