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Estimating the probability of negative events

Psychology, disasters, probability, statistics

Abstract

How well we are attuned to the statistics of our environment is a fundamental question in understanding human behaviour. It seems particularly important to be able to provide accurate assessments of the probability with which negative events occur so as to guide rational choice of preventative actions. One question that arises here is whether or not our probability estimates for negative events are systematically biased by their severity. In a minimal experimental context involving an unambiguous, objective representation of probability, we found that participants judged a controllable event as more likely to occur when its utility was extremely negative than when it was more neutral. A decision-theoretic explanation based on loss function asymmetries is advanced which supports the claim that probability estimates are not intrinsically biased by utilities.

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