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Cognition and Wealth: The Importance of Probabilistic Thinking

  • Lee Lillard
  • Robert J. Willis

    (University of Michigan)

This paper utilizes a large set of subjective probability questions from the Health and Retirement Survey to construct an index measuring the precision of probabilistic beliefs (PPB) and relates this index to household choices about the riskiness of their portfolios and the rate of growth of their net worth. A theory of uncertainty aversion based on repeated sampling is proposed that resolves the Ellsberg Paradox within a conventional expected utility model. In this theory, uncertainty aversion is implied by risk aversion. This theory is then used to propose a link between an individual’s degree of uncertainty and his propensity to give “focal” answers of “0”, “50_50” or “100” or “exact” answers to survey questions and the validity of this interpretation is tested empirically. Finally, an index of the precision of probabilistic thinking is constructed by calculating the fraction of probability questions to which each HRS respondent gives a non-focal answer. This index is shown to have a statistically and economically significant positive effect on the fraction of risky assets in household portfolios and on the rate of growth of these assets longitudinally. These results suggest that there is systematic variation in the competence of individuals to manage investment accounts that should be considered in designing policies to create individual retirement accounts in the Social Security system.

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File URL: http://www.mrrc.isr.umich.edu/publications/Papers/pdf/wp007.pdf
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Paper provided by University of Michigan, Michigan Retirement Research Center in its series Working Papers with number wp007.

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Length: 52 pages
Date of creation: Jun 2001
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:mrr:papers:wp007
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  1. Lillard, Lee A & Willis, Robert J, 1978. "Dynamic Aspects of Earning Mobility," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 46(5), pages 985-1012, September.
  2. Willis, Robert J., 1999. "Theory confronts data: how the HRS is shaped by the economics of aging and how the economics of aging will be shaped by the HRS," Labour Economics, Elsevier, vol. 6(2), pages 119-145, June.
  3. James J. Heckman & Robert J. Willis, 1975. "A Beta-Logistic Model for the Analysis of Sequential Labor Force Participation by Married Women," NBER Working Papers 0112, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Chris Starmer, 2000. "Developments in Non-expected Utility Theory: The Hunt for a Descriptive Theory of Choice under Risk," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 38(2), pages 332-382, June.
  5. James M. Poterba & David A. Wise, 1998. "Individual Financial Decisions in Retirement Saving Plans and the Provision of Resources for Retirement," NBER Chapters, in: Privatizing Social Security, pages 363-401 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Gilboa, Itzhak & Schmeidler, David, 1989. "Maxmin expected utility with non-unique prior," Journal of Mathematical Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(2), pages 141-153, April.
  7. R. Mehra & E. Prescott, 2010. "The equity premium: a puzzle," Levine's Working Paper Archive 1401, David K. Levine.
  8. Johnson, William R, 1978. "A Theory of Job Shopping," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 92(2), pages 261-78, May.
  9. Rothschild, Michael & Stiglitz, Joseph E., 1970. "Increasing risk: I. A definition," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 2(3), pages 225-243, September.
  10. James P. Smith, 2004. "Inheritances and Bequests," Labor and Demography 0408012, EconWPA.
  11. Michael D. Hurd & Daniel L. McFadden & Li Gan, 1998. "Subjective Survival Curves and Life Cycle Behavior," NBER Chapters, in: Inquiries in the Economics of Aging, pages 259-309 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Arulampalam, W. & Robin A. Naylor & Jeremy P. Smith, 2002. "University of Warwick," Royal Economic Society Annual Conference 2002 9, Royal Economic Society.
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