Measuring ambiguity preferences: A new ambiguity preference survey module

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Ambiguity preferences are important to explain human decision-making in many areas in economics and finance. To measure individual ambiguity preferences, the experimental economics literature advocates using incentivized laboratory experiments. Yet, laboratory experiments are costly, time-consuming and require substantial administrative effort. This study develops an experimentally validated ambiguity preference survey module that can reliably measure ambiguity preferences when carrying out laboratory experiments is impractical. This toolkit may have wide applications, including end-of-session lab questionnaires, large scale surveys and financial client assessments.

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  1. 1.

    Empirical studies show that ambiguity aversion can explain, among others, patterns in stock market participation (Bianchi and Tallon 2018; Dimmock et al. 2016a, b) and health behaviours among adolescents (Sutter et al. 2013).

  2. 2.

    For example, theoretical models show that ambiguity aversion can explain the lower than expected investment in financial markets (e.g. Dow and Da Costa Werlang 1992; Bossaerts et al. 2010) and real investment projects (e.g. Nishimura and Ozaki 2007), the economic evaluation of climate change (e.g. Weitzman 2009), the equity premium puzzle (e.g. Collard et al. 2018) or low reservation wages for job searchers (e.g. Nishimura and Ozaki 2004.

  3. 3.

    For example, the study by Dimmock et al. (2016a) paid USD 23,850 in real incentives.

  4. 4.

    One example is the design by Dimmock et al. (2016b) who use three sets of incentivized dynamic choice tasks to elicit ambiguity preferences for three different levels of ambiguity. They show that a-insensitivity is related to financial behaviour.

  5. 5.

    In our considerations, there was also a trade-off between the duration of the experiment (and the incentives paid) and the number of participants our budget allowed.

  6. 6.

    For a review, see Camerer and Weber (1992), Trautmann and van de Kuilen (2016), and Carbone et al. (2017).

  7. 7.

    We also considered measuring ambiguity preferences using a binary choice list where the expected payoff of the risky urn changes by monotonically decreasing its prize (but not its probability), see for example Chakravarty and Roy (2009). However, in such a setting the switching point depends on the subjects’ risk preferences. Although it is possible to first estimate risk preferences, such a procedure increases the overall measurement error of the estimated ambiguity preferences.

  8. 8.

    Any incentivized task can be transformed into a non-incentivized task by removing the monetary incentives. However, the complexity remains higher than in usual thought experiments.

  9. 9.

    Similar path dependent designs are used in Baillon et al. (2012), Baillon and Bleichrodt (2015), Dimmock et al. (2015, 2016a).

  10. 10.

    Kirton (1981) is widely used in empirical work in social psychology. For a review, see Furnham and Ribchester (1995). The scale develops from earlier works by Budner (1962), Rydell and Rosen (1966), and MacDonald Jr. (1970).

  11. 11.

    For example, individuals aim to be consistent in order to avoid cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957; Falk and Zimmermann 2017).

  12. 12.

    In a recent paper, Bade (2015) presents some problems with this random incentive mechanism when subjects are ambiguity averse. Yet, to our knowledge, the random incentive mechanism remains the best incentive scheme to measure ambiguity preferences and it is commonplace in laboratory and field studies.

  13. 13.

    The lowest payment was GBP 10, the highest payment GBP 26. Since the sessions lasted for about 40 minutes, the payoffs are sizable.

  14. 14.

    Because of symmetry of the two colours and an implicitly assumed exchangeability condition (Chew and Sagi 2006), a matching probability of 0.5 is the subjective probability of an ambiguity-neutral decision maker. From this, it follows that a matching probability larger than 0.5 corresponds to ambiguity seeking preferences, and that a matching probability smaller than 0.5 corresponds to ambiguity averse preferences. See Dimmock et al. (2015) for a theoretical derivation.

  15. 15.

    This is similar to Dimmock et al. (2016a, b), which document an average matching probability of 0.40 and 0.48, respectively.

  16. 16.

    If a subject is ambiguity neutral (m = 0.5), then he is indifferent between switching after situation 4 or 5, which corresponds to an estimated matching probability of 0.45 or 0.55.

  17. 17.

    In both thought experiments, the majority of subjects is ambiguity averse (p < 0.01, binomial probability test).

  18. 18.

    The choice set of alternative item selection procedures is vast. Alternatives vary along the dimensions of i) the selection procedure; ii) the goodness of fit statistics used; iii) the specification used in the iteration. Alternative selection procedures in (i) include stepwise forward selection, stepwise backward selection, or the Lasso technique by Tibshirani (1996). Each of these techniques has considerable drawbacks that make them unsuitable for our purpose. For a critical discussion on these alternative selection procedures see Falk et al. (2016), footnote 13. Alternatives in (ii) include the BIC (which we use), the adjusted R2, AIC or the Mean Squared Error. These statistics apply different penalties for the estimation of additional parameters. Alternatives in (iii) include non-linear functional forms.

  19. 19.

    In order to classify responses into binary indicators (i.e. ambiguity tolerant/intolerant), we use the sample median value for each survey question to take into account the distribution of sample responses. Some of the survey question responses have skewed distributions. This is likely to be due to the composition of our subject sample: students. For example, the majority of young people agree to the statement “I would like to live in a foreign country new to me.” While the use of the sample median is not indispensable, it creates relative classifications within sample.

  20. 20.

    Two alternative specifications are possible. A more flexible approach would be to implement a fully non-parametric specification with a binary indicator for each value of the rating scales (= 1 if that value is chosen, = 0 otherwise). The advantage of this approach is to allow for a flexible, non-linear, pattern of predictors’ correlations with the ambiguity benchmark. As we measured the survey item predictors on 7-point Likert scales, this approach would imply estimating 6 parameters for each ordinal predictor. Given our sample size, such an approach would be inappropriate as we would run out of degrees of freedom quickly. However, the fully non-parametric approach would be advisable for future studies with larger samples. A second alternative approach is to treat rating scales as continuous variables. This approach relies on the assumption of linearity, which may, but need not, be satisfied. As a robustness test, we run auxiliary regressions to test the linearity assumption in our sample and we conclude that the linearity assumption cannot be rejected for the items selected. These tests are available in the online Appendix E.

  21. 21.

    This result shows that the dynamic Ellsberg thought experiment is a better predictor relative to the static two-colour Ellsberg thought experiment. This does not mean that the Ellsberg thought experiment is not a good proxy, but that the dynamic Ellsberg thought experiment explains more variation in the benchmark. Indeed, the static Ellsberg thought experiment is significantly correlated with ambiguity preferences in pairwise tests (see Table 4). This provides a validation to existing applications of the static Ellsberg thought experiment, e.g., Butler et al. (2014).

  22. 22.

    The experimental procedure of this second round of experiments is identical to those described in Section 2.

  23. 23.

    As an example, suppose a subject reveals in the dynamic Ellsberg urn experiment a matching probability of 37.5% and answers all 4 survey questions with values revealing ambiguity tolerant attitudes. Then the ambiguity preference score equals 37.5 + 20 + 20 + 20 − 20 + 130 = 207.5.


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We thank the editor Kip Viscusi and an anonymous referee for their constructive comments. We also thank Johannes Abeler, Aurelien Baillon, Han Bleichrodt, Syngjoo Choi, Peter Dürsch, Roy Kouwenberg, Daniel Martin, Ron Smith, Uwe Sunde, Matthias Sutter, Jean-Marc Tallon, Stefan Trautmann, Peter Wakker, Matthias Wibral, seminar participants at Paris-1, as well as conference participants at IMEBESS, the Maastricht behavioral and experimental economics symposium, FUR XVI, Verein für Socialpolitik, ESRC Workshop on Preferences and Personality, NIBS, D-TEA, and the Royal Economic Society conference for helpful discussion and comments. This work was supported by a BEI research grant by Birkbeck College. Any remaining errors are ours.

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Cavatorta, E., Schröder, D. Measuring ambiguity preferences: A new ambiguity preference survey module. J Risk Uncertain 58, 71–100 (2019).

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  • Ambiguity
  • Preference measurement
  • Decision making
  • Experimental economics
  • Survey validation

JEL Classifications

  • C81
  • C83
  • C91
  • D81