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What are the chances? How descriptions of probability affect risky decisions

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posted on 07.12.2021, 09:01 by Pickett, Jared

People make different decisions when they know the odds of an event occurring, (e.g. told 10% chance of an earthquake that year) than when they draw on only their own experience (e.g. living in a city with, on average, one earthquake every 10 years). It may be that when we make decisions based on our past experience (decisions from experience) we are more likely to choose a risky option when it can lead to the biggest win and avoid it when it can lead to the biggest loss, this effect is called the Extreme-Outcome rule. Across three Experiments we tested the Extreme-Outcome rule by having participants make repeated choices between either safe or risky options which had the same expected value. In each experiment, we varied the magnitude of the reinforcer’s participants could win in both an Experience condition and a condition that had both description and experience information. In Experiment 1 where we had two reinforcer sizes (small and large) we found an Extreme-Outcome effect in the Experience condition, but not the Description-Experience condition. In Experiment 2 we tested a prediction of the Extreme-Outcome rule that participants would be sensitive to the best and worst outcome by adding another reinforcer size (reinforcers were small, medium and large) and therefore on some trials neither alternative included an extreme outcome. We also removed zero as a potential outcome to investigate whether zero aversion might be driving the effect of reinforcer magnitude in the Experience condition. We did not find response patterns consistent with an Extreme-Outcome rule in the Experience condition. Instead, participants were least risk seeking when the reinforcer was small, but there was no difference in levels of risk seeking between the medium and large reinforcer trials. In other words, there was an effect of the low-extreme outcome but not the high-extreme outcome. Like Experiment 1, in the Description-Experience condition risk preference was not influenced by reinforcer size, but the absolute levels were higher. To investigate whether this increase in risk preference was due to removing the zero, in Experiment 3 we manipulated whether zero was present or absent. When zero was absent, risk preference was not influenced by the size of the reinforcer in the Description-Experience condition, but there was an effect of the low-extreme outcome when zero was present. We also found an effect of the low extreme outcome in the Experience condition regardless of whether zero was present or absent. Overall, these findings suggest the Extreme-Outcome rule needs to be modified to take into account the effect of the low extreme but not the high extreme outcome.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Macaskill, Anne; Hunt, Maree