Book chapter

Prospect Theory, Loss Aversion, and Political Behavior (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Prospect theory introduces several anomalies in the behavior of rational agents, including loss aversion, the reflection effect, probability weighting, and the certainty effect. Loss aversion occurs relative to the current state of the world, called reference point. Being loss averse causes people to prefer the current state of affairs above and beyond the expected utility that comes from a risky political change, engendering a status quo bias. Yet, bias is asymmetric due to the reflection effect: people are too tepid toward advantageous platforms or candidates, whereas they are not critical enough of detrimental policies or bad politicians. Both rich and poor citizens take similar stances on nonpartisan issues (such as national defense): this happens because they evaluate uncertain policy changes relative to a reference point. Citizens welcome radical political platforms with greater enthusiasm than incremental proposals.Generally, under prospect theory societal conflict is smoother than under expected utility theory. Older societies are more prone to preserving the status quo than younger ones. These properties also affect the choice of voting rules. Loss aversion induces people to prefer more prudent voting rules and preserve the status quo. Hence, agents favor higher majority thresholds or even unanimity over simple majority in constitutional choice. The status quo bias supports the persistence of policy cycles, with prolonged drifts in one direction before a trend reversal. In sum, loss aversion and other anomalies pinpointed by prospect theory offer insightful predictions with which to study political phenomena.