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Social factors affect many types of human behavior. Possible evaluation by others has been found to be relevant for racist attitudes (Warner and DeFleur 1969) and for alleged aggression differences by gender (Lightdale and Prentice 1994). According to Tetlock (1985), the potential evaluation by others is one of the most important factors influencing human decision making processes. In the economic realm, Curley et al. (1986) find that other-evaluation can increase ambiguity aversion when several people observe the decision maker’s choice. Trautmann, Vieider, and Wakker (2008) find that eliminating the possibility of other-evaluation by making the subject’s preferences her own private knowledge causes ambiguity aversion to disappear. McFadden (2006) calls for a more general role of social influences in the explanation of economic behavior.
It seems all the more surprising that the overwhelming economics literature does seem to be completely oblivious to social influences. In the literature on individual decision making the individual is generally treated like an island that is completely isolated from external influences. This fundamental assumption is not even so much as discussed - a fact that may have a perverse effect on many findings. Indeed, the complete obliviousness to potential social factors influencing individual decision making processes leads to a loss of control in experiments, where the possibility of social influences is often left to vary between experiments - and, much worse, sometimes even between treatments. In the absence of a clear understanding of what effects social influences might have under different conditions, an effort to keep the level of social exposure constant across treatments and experiments seems to be a necessity if one wants to avoid loss of control over the experimental conditions.  
A growing literature in social psychology shows the various effects that accountability, the expectation by a decision maker that she may be called upon to justify her behavior in front of others, has on human decision making processes. The effects accountability may have under different conditions are laid out in the contingency model on judgment and choice (Tetlock et al. 1989). Accountability may have different effects according to whether the views of the potential audience are known or unknown; whether the decision maker is committed to a decision previously taken or not; whether the problem at hand has a solution that may be arrived at by increasing cognitive effort or not; and by whether a given choice may appear as more or less easily justifiable as compared to alternative choices.
Accountability with no pre-commitment in front of an audience whose views are known generally results in conformity to that view (Asch 1957, Tetlock 1983), or in the equivalent phenomenon of strategic attitude shifts (Tetlock et al. 1989). Such behavior is often attributed to cognitive laziness. Low costs of conformity in comparison to the cost of deviating may also play a role in some situations.
If the views of the potential audience are unknown and no pre-commitment exists, the observed choice behavior is more complicated. Accountability in front of an audience with unknown views generally results in more cognitive effort. This phenomenon has been called pre-emptive self-criticism (Tetlock 1983, Tetlock and Kim 1987, Lerner and Tetlock 1999), consisting in more options being considered more in depth, thereby anticipating the possible criticisms others could bring against one’s choice.
Accountability to an unknown audience has been found to lead to less biased decisions in cases where the normatively correct decision was either known by the subjects, or could be arrived at by higher cognitive effort (Simonson and Nye 1992). When on the other hand no solution is easily arrived at, people tend to choose the option that appears more easily justifiable. This may be explained by the fact that people have been found to often rely on reasons instead of indices such as expected value when making choices (Shafir et al. 1993). When called upon to make a risky choice they may need to justify in front of an audience whose views are unknown, we would thus expect that the decision maker picks the decision which he will deem most justifiable (Simonson 1989).


Asch, S.E. (1957). An Experimental Investigation of Group Influence. In “Preventive and Social Psychiatry”.                                  

Curley, Shawn P., J. Frank Yates and Richard A. Abrams (1986). Psychological Sources of Ambiguity Avoidance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 38, pp. 230-256.

Leary, Mark R. (1983). A Brief Version of the Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 9(3), 371-375.

Lerner, Jennifer S. and Philip E. Tetlock (1999). Accounting for  the Effects of Accountability. Psychological Bulletin 125, 255-275.

Lightdale, Jenifer R.  and Deborah A. Prentice (1994). Rethinking Sex Differences in Aggression: Aggressive Behavior in the Absence of Social Roles. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 20, 34 - 44.

McFadden, D. (2006). Free Markets and Fettered Consumers. American Economic Review 96 (1), 5-29.

Shafir, Eldar, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky (1993). Reason-based Choice. Cognition 49, 11-36.

Simonson, Itamar (1989). Choice Based on Reason: the Case of Attraction and Compromise Effect. The Journal of Consumer Research 16(2), pp. 158-174.

Simonson, Itamar and Peter Nye (1992). The Effect of Accountability and Susceptibility on Decision Errors. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 51, 416-446.

Tetlock, Philip E. (1983). Accountability and Complexity of Thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 45 (1), 74-83.

Trautmann, Stefan T., Ferdinand M. Vieider, and Peter P. Wakker (2008). Causes of Ambiguity Aversion: Known Versus Unknown Preferences. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 36, 225-243.

Watson, David and Ronald Friend (1969). Measurement of Social-Evaluative Anxiety. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 33 (4), 448-457.