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When behavioral economics meets a $700M Powerball jackpot

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2017

Business Insider went out onto the streets of NYC and tried to buy people’s just-purchased Powerball tickets ahead of the $700 million drawing. They did not get many takers, even when offering twice the price they paid (which meant they could just go and buy double the number of tickets and slash their odds of winning). The video says this is an example of regret avoidance.

A theory of investor behavior that attempts to explain why investors refuse to admit to themselves that they’ve made a poor investment decision so they don’t have to face the unpleasant feelings associated with that decision. Regret avoidance causes investors to not correct bad decisions, which can make those decisions worse. Regret avoidance is the result of cognitive dissonance.

As Alex Tabarrok notes, it’s also a demonstration of the endowment effect (Tabarrok: “these people are crazy!”).

In psychology and behavioral economics, the endowment effect…is the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. This is typically illustrated in two ways. In a valuation paradigm, people will tend to pay more to retain something they own than to obtain something they do not own — even when there is no cause for attachment, or even if the item was only obtained minutes ago. In an exchange paradigm, people given a good are reluctant to trade it for another good of similar value. For example, participants first given a Swiss chocolate bar were generally unwilling to trade it for a coffee mug, whereas participants first given the coffee mug were generally unwilling to trade it for the chocolate bar.

One way to think about it is if you buy a lottery ticket for $5 and someone offers you $10 and you don’t take it, financially it’s like you’ve paid $10 for the ticket, an easily replaceable item with an average worth of about $2.50 (and more likely worth nothing). But no one should be buying tickets anyway because the lottery sucks.