Impulsivity pp 61-114 | Cite as

From Risk and Time Preferences to Cultural Models of Causality: On the Challenges and Possibilities of Field Experiments, with Examples from Rural Southwestern Madagascar

  • Bram Tucker
Part of the Nebraska Symposium on Motivation book series (NSM, volume 64)


Risk preference and time preference experiments have been conducted in field conditions in many rural and urban populations throughout the world, to evaluate how non-Western people subjectively trade off the value of reward amount, probability, and delay. My thesis is that it is difficult to quantitatively evaluate risk and time preferences with precision and that choice experiments have dubious internal validity (it is unclear whether the experiments evaluate the same thing—preferences—across all subjects and studies) and external validity (it is unclear how they relate to actual behavior). Probability and elapsing days preceding a reward are not necessarily the meaningful components of choice under risk and intertemporal choice for many people. I argue that if the goal of such work is to understand the cultural differences in thought and action related to risk and time, it may be more productive to examine how people in different cultures understand causal relationships linking natural, social, and supernatural factors to successful and unsuccessful outcomes. I illustrate my thesis by describing 13 risk and time preference choice experiments that I conducted among Masikoro farmers, Mikea hunter-gatherers, and Vezo fishermen in southwestern Madagascar from 2003 to 2008, contrasted with published risk and time preference studies from throughout the world. I find inconsistency in subjects’ choices across experiments and time, inconsistency in the determinants of choice, and a poor relationship between risk and time preferences and amount of time spent foraging and fishing. Then, I discuss some preliminary ethnographic and experimental attempts to understand the people’s causal models for risky economic outcomes. Preliminary evidence suggests that southwestern Malagasy understand activity risk as being caused primarily by natural factors and personal risk by supernatural factors.


Risk preference Time preference Choice experiment Causality Culture Farmers Hunter-gatherers Fishermen 



Special thanks to Jeffrey Stevens for inviting me to participate in the 2016 Nebraska Symposium and to Emily Johnson, Juan Duque, and Pamela Waldvogel for making my visit to Lincoln easy and fun. Throughout the process of learning about and conducting choice experiments, I received invaluable advice from many scholars. Thanks to the following people for answering my emails during the past two decades: Lawrence Kuznar, Joseph Henrich, Richard McElreath, Ricardo Godoy, Warren Bickel, Charles Holt, and Kris Kirby. Adam Goodie and Karen Allen provided valuable insights after a practice run of the symposium talk that is the basis of this paper. Dan Steck was a huge help and inspiration early in my experimental career; Dan, sorry our co-authored paper never made it to print. This project has also benefitted from discussions with Victoria Ramenzoni, Jessica Ham, Joseph Lanning, Amber Huff, Elaina Lill, Laura Tilghman, and Aaron Lenihan. For assistance and support in Madagascar, thanks to the National Science Foundation (0650412), the Université de Toliara and its past president Théodoret and current president Alphonse Dina, CeDRATOM and its director Barthélemy Manjakahery, and my Malagasy colleagues and field crew (see Footnote 1). And thanks to the hundreds of Masikoro, Mikea, and Vezo people who tolerated the choice experiments.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA

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