The Complaint Bias in Subjective Evaluations of Incentives

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Loss aversion, the standard model for understanding the effect of losses, is often interpreted to suggest that losses result in more extreme feelings, and this leads to overweighting losses in behavioral decisions. In 3 experiments, we question this interpretation by examining rated feelings in experience-based and description-based decisions. Experiments 1 and 2 focused on experience-based decisions with equiprobable gains and losses. The results showed that participants reported more extreme feelings for losses than for equivalent gains. For example, the feelings associated with a loss of 5 tokens were on average 2.6 times more extreme (i.e., distant from the scale’s midpoint) than the feelings for a gain of 5 tokens. At the same time, however, these extreme ratings were not associated with behavioral loss aversion. Furthermore, in Experiment 2 the asymmetry in subjective ratings was practically eliminated when participants were incentivized to give truthful reports, implying that it is the result of a self-serving response bias. Finally, in Experiment 3 we focused on 1-shot description-based decisions. In this setting the asymmetry between losses and gains was reversed. Possibly, the tendency to complain about losses and to minimize praise of gains only takes place when it affects subsequent interactions.

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