A Caltech Library Service

Essays in Behavioral Decision Theory


Kovach, Matthew Luke (2015) Essays in Behavioral Decision Theory. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z9D21VJH.


This thesis studies decision making under uncertainty and how economic agents respond to information. The classic model of subjective expected utility and Bayesian updating is often at odds with empirical and experimental results; people exhibit systematic biases in information processing and often exhibit aversion to ambiguity. The aim of this work is to develop simple models that capture observed biases and study their economic implications.

In the first chapter I present an axiomatic model of cognitive dissonance, in which an agent's response to information explicitly depends upon past actions. I introduce novel behavioral axioms and derive a representation in which beliefs are directionally updated. The agent twists the information and overweights states in which his past actions provide a higher payoff. I then characterize two special cases of the representation. In the first case, the agent distorts the likelihood ratio of two states by a function of the utility values of the previous action in those states. In the second case, the agent's posterior beliefs are a convex combination of the Bayesian belief and the one which maximizes the conditional value of the previous action. Within the second case a unique parameter captures the agent's sensitivity to dissonance, and I characterize a way to compare sensitivity to dissonance between individuals. Lastly, I develop several simple applications and show that cognitive dissonance contributes to the equity premium and price volatility, asymmetric reaction to news, and belief polarization.

The second chapter characterizes a decision maker with sticky beliefs. That is, a decision maker who does not update enough in response to information, where enough means as a Bayesian decision maker would. This chapter provides axiomatic foundations for sticky beliefs by weakening the standard axioms of dynamic consistency and consequentialism. I derive a representation in which updated beliefs are a convex combination of the prior and the Bayesian posterior. A unique parameter captures the weight on the prior and is interpreted as the agent's measure of belief stickiness or conservatism bias. This parameter is endogenously identified from preferences and is easily elicited from experimental data.

The third chapter deals with updating in the face of ambiguity, using the framework of Gilboa and Schmeidler. There is no consensus on the correct way way to update a set of priors. Current methods either do not allow a decision maker to make an inference about her priors or require an extreme level of inference. In this chapter I propose and axiomatize a general model of updating a set of priors. A decision maker who updates her beliefs in accordance with the model can be thought of as one that chooses a threshold that is used to determine whether a prior is plausible, given some observation. She retains the plausible priors and applies Bayes' rule. This model includes generalized Bayesian updating and maximum likelihood updating as special cases.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Uncertainty; Information; Non-Bayesian Updating; Cognitive Dissonance; Prior-bias; Ambiguity Aversion
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:Social Science
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Echenique, Federico
Thesis Committee:
  • Echenique, Federico (chair)
  • Saito, Kota
  • Cvitanić, Jakša
  • Ortoleva, Pietro Salvatore Tommaso
Defense Date:15 May 2015
Non-Caltech Author Email:matthewkovach1 (AT)
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05292015-095332979
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8922
Deposited By: Matthew Kovach
Deposited On:30 May 2015 00:07
Last Modified:28 Oct 2021 19:17

Thesis Files

PDF - Final Version
See Usage Policy.


Repository Staff Only: item control page