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Decisions about Human Lives: An Experimental Measure of Risk Attitudes under Prospect Theory
Emmanuel Kemel  1@  , Corina Paraschiv  2@  
1 : Centre d'études et d'expertise sur les risques, l'environnement, la mobilité et l'aménagement  (Cerema)  -  Website
2 : Groupe de recherche en économie et gestion à HEC  (GREGHEC)  -  Website
CNRS : UMR2959

One of the main goals of public policies is to implement measures that aim to reduce
mortality and save human lives. This is particularly the case in the domains of health,
medicine, security or safety (in transport, housing, professional activities). Such programs can
involve significant costs for the society but their consequences in terms of saved human lives
are virtually always uncertain. When deciding to implement these measures, policy makers
consider both money and human lives as relevant aspects. Classical cost-benefit analysis
assumes that human lives can be monetized and thus aggregated with other monetary aspects
of the decision problem. Therefore, literature on public decisions paid a lot of attention to
the trade-off between human lives and money with the objective to estimate how much money
should be invested in order to reduce death or fatality risks (e.g. the statistical value of life).
The monetization of saved human lives relies on the implicit assumption that decisions
about human lives follow the same behavioral pattern as decisions about money. Surprisingly,
despite a huge body of literature about risk attitudes for monetary outcomes, past research
does not provide any systematic investigation of risk attitudes in choices involving human lives.
Therefore, the assumption of comparable risk preferences for human lives and for money has
no clear empirical support in past research.

In this paper, we aim to fill the gap in the literature by comparing decisions about lives
and decisions about money separately. More precisely, we report an experiment that compares
risk attitudes for money and for human lives within prospect theory framework, a model that
received a large empirical support for monetary outcomes. For each type of attribute, we elicit
prospect theory components, namely utility, loss aversion and probability weighting functions
for gains and losses.
Results show that respondents treat differently the two attributes especially when losses
are involved. In particular, econometric estimations (based on discrete-choice modelling) show
higher loss aversion and more elevated probability weighting in the loss domain for lives than
for money. These results contribute to the emerging stream of literature showing that risk
attitudes (and more precisely attitudes towards probabilities) can depend on the type of
attribute at stake. More practically, our results question the monetization of human lives
in public decisions and may explain why policy makers are sometimes reluctant to use this

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