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The paradigm for modelling decision-making under uncertainty has undoubtedly been the theory of Expected Utility, which was first developed by von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944) and later extended by Savage (1954) to the case of subjective uncertainty. The inadequacy of the theory of Subjective Expected Utility (SEU) as a descriptive theory was soon pointed out in experiments, most famously by Allais (1953) and Ellsberg (1961). The observed departures from SEU noticed by Allais and Ellsberg became known as “paradoxes”. The Ellsberg paradox gave rise, several years later, to a new literature on decision-making under ambiguity. The theoretical side of this literature was pioneered by Schmeidler (1989). This literature views the departures from SEU in situations similar to those discussed by Ellsberg as rational responses to ambiguity. The rationality is “recovered” by relaxing Savage's Sure-Thing principle and adding an ambiguity-aversion postulate. Thus the ambiguity-aversion literature takes a normative point of view and does consider Ellsberg-type choices as behavioural “anomalies”.
We provide a critical assessment of the ambiguity aversion literature, which we characterize in terms of the view that Ellsberg choices are rational responses to ambiguity, to be explained by relaxing Savage's Sure-Thing principle and adding an ambiguity-aversion postulate. First, admitting Ellsberg choices as rational leads to behaviour, such as sensitivity to irrelevant sunk cost, or aversion to information, which most economists would consider absurd or irrational. Second, we argue that the mathematical objects referred to as “beliefs” in the ambiguity aversion literature have little to do with how an economist or game theorist understands and uses the concept. This is because of the lack of a useful notion of updating. Third, the anomaly of the Ellsberg choices can be explained simply and without tampering with the foundations of choice theory. These choices can arise when decision makers form heuristics that serve them well in real-life situations where odds are manipulable, and misapply them to experimental settings.
This note argues that, under some circumstances, it is more rational not to behave in accordance with a Bayesian prior than to do so. The starting point is that in the absence of information, choosing a prior is arbitrary. If the prior is to have meaningful implications, it is more rational to admit that one does not have sufficient information to generate a prior than to pretend that one does. This suggests a view of rationality that requires a compromise between internal coherence and justification, similarly to compromises that appear in moral dilemmas. Finally, it is argued that Savage's axioms are more compelling when applied to a naturally given state space than to an analytically constructed one; in the latter case, it may be more rational to violate the axioms than to be Bayesian.
Are foundations of models of ambiguity-sensitive preferences too flawed to be usefully applied to economic models? Al-Najjar and Weinstein (2009) say such is indeed the case. In this paper, first, we point out that many of the key arguments by Al-Najjar and Weinstein do not apply to quite a few of the ambiguity preference models of more recent vintage, and therefore to that extent do not undermine the foundational aspects or applicability of ambiguity models in general. Second, we argue the focus in that paper on Ellsberg examples is an overly narrow concern; the Ellsberg examples have their uses but they are not the best context to understand why reasonable real-world agents may find acting in an ambiguity-sensitive manner normatively or prescriptively appealing. Finally, normative considerations aside, we submit that Al-Najjar and Weinstein are unduly dismissive of the power of such preferences to provide illuminating positive analyses of economic phenomena.
Al-Najjar and Weinstein (2009) argue that the extant literature on ambiguity aversion is not successful in accounting for Ellsberg choices as rational responses to ambiguity. We concur, and propose that rational choice under ambiguity aims at robustness rather than avoidance of ambiguity. A central argument explains why robust choice is intrinsically context-dependent and legitimately violates standard choice consistency conditions. If choice consistency is forced, however, ambiguity-aversion emerges as a semi-rational response to ambiguity.
Al-Najjar and Weinstein (2009) propose to scrutinize the implications of recent theories of ambiguity in dynamic settings. They conclude that such implications are so unreasonable as to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the theories under consideration. The present paper argues that the seemingly unreasonable implications highlighted by Al-Najjar and Weinstein can be understood as the result of basic trade-offs that arise naturally in the presence of ambiguity. In particular, Al-Najjar and Weinstein are uncomfortable with the possibility that an ambiguity-averse individual may reject freely available information; however, this phenomenon simply reflects a trade-off between the intrinsic value of information, which is positive even in the presence of ambiguity, and the value of commitment.
The pioneering contributions of Bewley, Gilboa and Schmeidler highlighted important weaknesses in the foundations of economics and game theory. The Bayesian methodology on which these fields are based does not answer such basic questions as what makes beliefs reasonable, or how agents should form beliefs and expectations. Providing the initial impetus for debating these issues is a contribution that will have the lasting value it deserves.