Experimental Economics

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 263–284 | Cite as

Poverty and probability: aspiration and aversion to compound lotteries in El Salvador and India

  • Dean Spears


Some experimental participants are averse to compound lotteries: they prefer simple lotteries that depend on only one random event, even when the simple lotteries offer lower expected value. This paper proposes that many behavioral “investments” represent more compound risk for poorer people—who often face multiple dimensions of deprivation—than for richer people. As a result, identical aversion to compound lotteries can prevent investment among poorer people, but have no effect on richer people. The paper reports five studies: two initial studies that document that aversion to compound lotteries operates as an economic preference, two “laboratory experiments in the field” in El Salvador, and one Internet survey experiment in India. Poorer Salvadoran women who choose a compound lottery are 27 percentage points more likely to have found formal employment than those who chose a simple lottery, but lottery choice is unrelated to employment for richer women. Poorer students at the national Salvadoran university choose more compound lotteries than richer students, on average, implying that aversion to compound lotteries screened out poorer aspirants but not richer ones. Poorer and lower-caste Indian participants who choose compound lotteries are more likely than those who choose simple lotteries to have a different occupation than their parents, which is not the case for better-off participants. These findings suggest that the consequences of aversion to compound lotteries are different in the context of poverty and disadvantage.


Poverty Reduction of compound lotteries Compound risk Employment El Salvador India Lab experiments in the field 

JEL Classification

O12 D80 D10 J20 



I thank Gabriela Escobar for excellent field research assistance, and Roberto Mena, the Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas, and the Universidad de El Salvador for their kind support and for hosting the experiments. I appreciate comments from Anne Case, Diane Coffey, John Darley, Faruk Gul, Karla Hoff, John Papp, Wolfgang Pesendorfer, Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, Eldar Shafir, Brandon Stichka, Abby Sussman, and two anonymous referees. All errors are my own.

Supplementary material

10683_2012_9333_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (722 kb)
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Copyright information

© Economic Science Association 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wallace Hall, Economics DepartmentPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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