This week, we completed the first two of a series of five Finance 4335 class meetings (scheduled for September 7-21) devoted to decision-making under risk and uncertainty. Our focus is on measuring risk, modeling consumer and investor risk preferences, and exploring implications for the pricing and management of risk. We focus especially on the concept of risk aversion. Other things equal, risk averse decision-makers prefer less risk to more risk. Risk aversion helps to explain some very basic facts of human behavior; e.g., why investors diversify, why consumers purchase insurance, etc.
Several years ago, The Economist published a particularly interesting article about various behavioral determinants of risk aversion, entitled “Risk off: Why some people are more cautious with their finances than others”. Here are some key takeaways from this (somewhat dated, but still quite timely) article:
- Economists have long known that people are risk averse, yet the willingness to run risks varies enormously among individuals and over time.
- Genetics explains a third of the difference in risk-taking; e.g., a Swedish study of twins finds that identical twins had “… a closer propensity to invest in shares” than fraternal ones.
- Upbringing, environment, and experience also matter; e.g., “… the educated and the rich are more daring financially. So are men, but apparently not for genetic reasons.”
- People’s financial history has a strong impact on their taste for risk; e.g., “… people who experienced high (low) returns on the stock market earlier in life were, years later, likelier to report a higher (lower) tolerance for risk, to own (not own) shares and to invest a bigger (smaller) slice of their assets in shares.”
- “Exposure to economic turmoil appears to dampen people’s appetite for risk irrespective of their personal financial losses.” Furthermore, low tolerance for risk is linked to past emotional trauma.