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Risk Aversion, Impatience and Cognitive Ability

Written By: Jason Shafrin - Mar• 06•08

Are smart people risk averse? Are dumb people impatient?

This is what Thomas Dohmen, Armin Falk, David Huffman, Uwe Sunde explore in their 2007 Discussion paper. Using data from a choice experiment of 1000 German adults, the authors tested for risk aversion using a Holt & Laury framework, and for impatience by varying the annual rate of return for a €100 investment. It is necessary to test the risk aversion and impatience parameter separately because in expected utility theory (EUT), a more concave utility function will cause more impatient choices, holding constant the discount rate. Cognitive ability was measured using questions similar to those on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS).

The authors found that individuals with higher cognitive abilities are less likely to be risk averse. Further, those who scored higher on the WAIS are significantly less impatient. This finding is true even after controlling for income, education, and credit constraint co-variates.

According to the authors:

“The paper also points to a different interpretation of reduced form models that have been estimated in the literature on cognitive ability and labor market outcomes. These models have typically included a measure of cognitive abilities, but not risk aversion or impatience, as explanatory variables (e.g., Cawley et al., 2001). Outcomes such as educational attainment or wages may by affected by risk aversion and impatience, and thus part of the impact of cognitive ability may reflect the correlation with these traits. In other words, our findings point to a potentially important source of omitted variable bias in this type of estimation.

Given that cognitive ability is known to be transmitted from parents to children, our findings could also be relevant for the literature on intergenerational transmission of preferences and socio-economic status.”

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