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On the Evolutionary Origin of Prospect Theory Preferences

33 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2007 Last revised: 19 Aug 2008

Rose McDermott

University of California, Santa Barbara - Department of Political Science

James H. Fowler

UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences; UC San Diego School of Medicine

Oleg Smirnov

State University of New York (SUNY) - Department of Political Science

Abstract

Prospect theory scholars have identified important human decision-making biases, but they have been conspicuously silent on the question of the origin of these biases. Here we create a model that shows preferences consistent with prospect theory may have an origin in evolutionary psychology. Specifically, we derive a model from risk-sensitive optimal foraging theory to generate an explanation for the origin and function of context-dependent risk aversion and risk seeking behavior. Although this model suggests that human cognitive architecture evolved to solve particular adaptive problems related to finding sufficient food resources to survive, we argue that this same architecture persists and is utilized in other survival-related decisions that are critical to understanding political outcomes. In particular, we identify important departures from standard results when we incorporate prospect theory into theories of spatial voting and legislator behavior, international bargaining and conflict, and economic development and reform.

Suggested Citation

McDermott, Rose and Fowler, James H. and Smirnov, Oleg, On the Evolutionary Origin of Prospect Theory Preferences. Journal of Politics, Vol. 70, No. 2, pp. 335-350, April 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1008034

Rose McDermott (Contact Author)

University of California, Santa Barbara - Department of Political Science ( email )

Dept. of Political Science
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9420
United States
805-893-6160 (Phone)

James H. Fowler

UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
Code 0521
La Jolla, CA 92093-0521
United States

HOME PAGE: http://jhfowler.ucsd.edu

UC San Diego School of Medicine ( email )

9500 Gilman Drive
MC 0507
La Jolla, CA 92093
United States

HOME PAGE: http://jhfowler.ucsd.edu

Oleg Smirnov

State University of New York (SUNY) - Department of Political Science ( email )

Stony Brook, 11794-4392
United States

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