Free Content Anomalies: Utility Maximization and Experienced Utility

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Abstract:

In this column, we discuss a version of the utility maximization hypothesis that can be tested—and we find that it is false. We review empirical challenges to utility maximization, which return to the old question of whether preferences optimize the experience of outcomes. Much of this work has focused on a necessary condition for utility-maximizing choices: an ability of economic agents to make accurate, or at least unbiased, forecasts of the hedonic outcomes of potential choices. The research we review shows that this condition is not satisfied: people do not always know what they will like; they often make systematic errors in predicting their future experience of outcomes and, as a result, fail to maximize their experienced utility. We discuss four areas in which errors of hedonic forecasting and choice have been documented: 1) where the emotional or motivational state of the agent is very different at t0 and at t1; 2) where the nature of the decision focuses attention on aspects of the outcome that will not be salient when it is actually experienced; 3) when choices are made on the basis of flawed evaluations of past experiences; and 4) when people forecast their future adjustment to new life circumstances.

Document Type: Regular Paper

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/089533006776526076

Publication date: December 1, 2006

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  • The Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP) attempts to fill a gap between the general interest press and most other academic economics journals. The journal aims to publish articles that will serve several goals: to synthesize and integrate lessons learned from active lines of economic research; to provide economic analysis of public policy issues; to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas among the fields of thinking; to offer readers an accessible source for state-of-the-art economic thinking; to suggest directions for future research; to provide insights and readings for classroom use; and to address issues relating to the economics profession.
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