Mental Accounting, Similarity, and Preferences Over the Timing of Outcomes

31 Pages Posted: 23 Sep 2019

See all articles by Ellen Evers

Ellen Evers

UC Berkeley, Haas

Alex Imas

Carnegie Mellon University - Department of Social and Decision Sciences

Date Written: September 12, 2019

Abstract

The theory of mental accounting is often used to understand how people evaluate multiple outcomes or events. However, a model of which outcomes are associated with the same mental account and evaluated jointly, versus different accounts and evaluated separately, has remained elusive. We develop a framework of mental accounting based on similarity theory: outcomes that overlap on salient attributes are categorized and assigned to the same mental while outcomes that do not overlap attributes are assigned to different accounts. This allows us to derive behavioral hypotheses on people’s preferences over the timing of outcomes given similarity-based constraints on mental accounting operations. Four studies provide support for the predictions: People prefer to experience similar losses close together in time and spread dissimilar losses apart; the reverse is true for gains, with a preference for dissimilar gains close together in time and similar gains to be spread apart. Importantly, our model is able to rationalize prior evidence that has found only limited support for the predictions of mental accounting on preferences over the timing of outcomes. Once the psychological process of similarity and categorization is explicitly incorporated into a formal model of mental accounting, its predictions are fully supported by the data.

Keywords: Mental Accounting, Hedonic Editing, Similarity, Categorization, Prospect theory, Intertemporal preferences

JEL Classification: D99

Suggested Citation

Evers, Ellen and Imas, Alex, Mental Accounting, Similarity, and Preferences Over the Timing of Outcomes (September 12, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3452943 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3452943

Ellen Evers (Contact Author)

UC Berkeley, Haas ( email )

Haas School of Business
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Alex Imas

Carnegie Mellon University - Department of Social and Decision Sciences ( email )

Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
United States

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