Risk Averse and Risk Seeking - Joe Abittan

Risk Averse and Risk Seeking

I would generally categorize myself as somewhat risk averse, but studies from Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow might suggest that I’m not really any different than anyone else. I might just be responding to the set of circumstances that I typically experience, similar to anyone else, and I might just be more aware of times when I am risk averse rather than times when I am more risk seeking. In particular, I might be risk averse in certain situations and categorize those situations correctly, but risk seeking in other situations without recognizing it.

 

Kahneman uses examples throughout his book to demonstrate to the audience that common cognitive errors and psychological tendencies are shared with even the most savvy readers who would pick up a book like Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman even uses anecdotes from his own life and his own thoughts to demonstrate how deep knowledge of cognitive biases and errors doesn’t make one immune. After demonstrating how our minds can lead us to be risk averse in some settings and risk seeking in others, Kahneman cautions us against a typical pattern that many of us will find ourselves in. “It is costly to be risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses.”

 

On its own, this quote doesn’t seem to reveal anything to interesting, but in the context of Kahneman’s experiments and examples, it reveals a lot about the way we behave whether we are risk seeking or risk averse. When we are offered a flat sum or a gamble with the potentially win more than the flat sum, we often won’t be willing to take the gamble. The guaranteed money is more appealing to us than the prospects of a higher winning with a small chance of gaining nothing. When it comes to gains, we are often risk averse, preferring the sure thing rather than the possibility of getting more with the risk of getting nothing or facing a cost.

 

However, we become risk seeking when we stand to lose something. As long as there is a small outside chance that we won’t lose anything, we will avoid a certain loss, risk a larger loss, and take a gamble. In Kahneman’s example he demonstrates how people will quickly turn down a sure loss of $750 for a 25% chance of losing nothing, even when there is a 75% chance of losing $1000.

 

When you do the math over numerous trials, you see that taking the loss at $750 is better. However, our minds don’t perceive things this way. When we stand to win something, we tend to become conservative and risk averse, but if we stand to lose something, we suddenly become more risk seeking. Combining these two tendencies can be dangerous. It means we can stand to gain much less than we might if we flipped our biases around, and it also means we are more likely to face greater losses with greater frequency than if we had been less risk seeking with regard to losses.

 

If we think about this in the context of our lives more generally, we can see that categorizing ourselves and most of our friends as either risk averse or risk seeking doesn’t necessarily make sense. When you are young, you really don’t have anything that you will be worried about losing. It makes sense that you might be more risk seeking, more willing to take on behaviors and ideas that are risky, but might have a big upside. You might procrastinate with important homework, retirement savings, and household chores because you know you will lose time (the only thing you may have if you are really young), and you can gamble on the consequences. As you get older, once you are established in a career, own a home, have a 401K, and move through life in general, you stand to lose more. Gains throughout your life become less significant due to Tyler Cowen‘s favorite idea, diminishing marginal returns. It becomes harder to give up the guaranteed gains because the marginal increase in a potential gain through a gamble is less appealing. You become risk averse as you get older and in more situations as you grow to have more things to worry about losing. Therefore, categorizing people as generally risk averse or generally risk seeking is meaningless. You need to look at the circumstances of their lives to understand where they find themselves in terms of social status, what material possessions they have, what their family structure is like, and you will start to understand why they make generally more risk averse or generally more risk seeking decisions. There is probably some variability across people, but I would expect the structures and systems in place around us shape our behavior more than any genetic or inherent factors.
Subjective Gains and Losses

Subjective Gains and Losses

“Outcomes that are better than the reference points are gains. Below the reference point they are losses.”

 

Daniel Kahneman writes extensively about our subjective experiences of the world in his book Thinking Fast and Slow and about how those subjective experiences can have very serious consequences in our decisions, political stances, and beliefs about the world. One area he focuses on are reference points, our baseline beliefs and expectations about the world. As it turns out, our expectations can influence whether we think things are going well or going poorly, regardless of what the actual outcomes are. On top of that, we will make adjustments to our behavior based on what we expect in regard to those outcomes.

 

Kahneman continues, “When directly compared or weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains. This asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history. Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.”

 

Without diving into the evolutionary psychology component of Kahneman’s quote (something that I normally would love to do) I want to focus on how complex our reality and decision making becomes when we predict outcomes, shape our behavior in response to those predictions, and bias those predictions based on personal reference points.

 

In the United States, two major economic indicators that are used by banks, economists, and the media for deciding whether we have a good economy or a poor economy are GDP growth and interest rates. Both of these measures are represented as percentages, both have specific targets that we have decided are good, and from both follow a set of decisions that we hope will improve the numbers in the direction we want to see. What is interesting, is that we have reference points for the numbers in terms of what percentages we believe reflect a strong and growing economy, and our subjective experience of the economy can be changed by those outcomes.

 

A 1% increase in GDP growth is growth in overall GDP, but to an economist, that growth is abysmal, and actions need to be taken to get that growth rate closer to 3 to 4%. At the same time, if expectations for GDP growth are only .8% and we hit the same 1% outcome, we might be very happy. In both situations, our decisions and behaviors might change based on the delta from our expected reference point and the final reference point. A gain can feel like a gain, but it can similarly feel like a loss depending on where exactly we placed our reference point.

 

Interest rates reflect similar dynamics, and might be even more complicated by more clear competing interests and desires in terms of interest rates. Banks might want to see higher interest rates, to earn more money, while people taking out loans may love the low interest rates. A 2% interest rate might feel like a huge loss to one entity, while simultaneously feel like a gain to another.

 

This creates strange competitive dynamics, because our brains hate losses. We generally need an expected or realized gain to be 2 times larger than a potential or realized loss before we will risk money or accept an outcome. If we have a certain reference point in mind for the outcome we want or would be happy with, we may need to see a large skew in a positive direction for us to be happy, while even a minor loss will feel disastrous.  (At this very moment in the United States this is what is taking place with the presidential election. Several journalists have noted that in December of 2019, the Democrats would be thrilled with the election outcome we have today, but many adjusted their reference point to a Biden landslide win, so a close win feels like a tragic loss – and somewhat of a win for Trump).

 

Reference points feel like a simple idea, but what I hope this post shows is that they can be hugely consequential, and incredibly complex, especially when we have multiple actors with multiple reference points all interacting on small and large issues. Choose your reference point carefully, and try to recognize when you are operating with a certain refence point in mind and be willing to adjust or discard it when necessary. Don’t let a win get wiped away because it ended up being slightly smaller than your reference point expectation.

Desires

A frustrating thing about humanity is that we get tired of what we have pretty quickly. A new house, a new job, a new car all become part of our normal and fade to the background just a short time after we have them. The newness of the thing and the excitement it makes us feel disappear, and instead of appreciating what we have, it just exists with us as we start to look at other things we want.

 

This is part of the human mind that kept our ancestors striving for more and pushing to live better lives. Part of this mindset drove our evolution and helped get our species to the place we are at today. But in each of our individual lives, we can take this too far. Seneca, in Letters From a Stoic, has some advice with this in mind.

 

“Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them.”

 

We have all seen unnecessary and extravagant uses of money that seem more like showing off than anything else. What Seneca’s advice says, is that we should find a point where the use of money, the consumption of goods, or the continued accumulation of power just seems over the top. At that point of ridiculous extravagance, we should place a marker for ourselves saying no more. Over time, we should work to fit more things on the opposite side of that marker, constantly thinking about the things in our lives that are meaningful, help us live better, help humanity advance, or that just show off. The more we can be content without needing wealth to flaunt, the more we can live a meaningful life that we can enjoy. The limit we set can be at any point, which means it can be extremely extravagant, or it can be very modest. Learning to remember what we have and appreciate the things we have achieved and attained will help us as we place our marker which we do not desire to surpass.