The same but different: An empirical investigation of the reducibility principle

David V. Budescu, Ilan Fischer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


According to classical utility theory the valuation of any lottery should depend only on its outcomes and their respective probabilities, and should not be affected by the nature, complexity and structure of the chance mechanism. Previous research has documented systematic violations of this principle. For example, most subjects prefer lotteries in which the payoffs are contingent on the joint occurrence of multiple (high probability) events to simple lotteries, and lotteries in which the earlier stages offer higher probabilities than the later stages. We review the various violations of this principle and suggest a classification into two major types associated with misunderstanding of chance mechanisms and attitude towards the chance mechanism and process. In the present study 40 subjects were presented with 30 pairs of binary gambles. In any given pair the lotteries had identical outcomes and equal 'reduced' probabilities (and thus equal expected values). However, the chance mechanisms varied along a variety of factors such as the size of the sample space, the number of stages, temporal ordering, order of probabilities, their transparency and time constraints. Half the subjects saw lotteries involving gains and the other half considered only losses. After choosing one lottery in each pair, the subjects were asked to explain and justify their choices. The findings revealed systematic violations of the reducibility principle: subjects displayed a preference for lotteries with larger sample spaces, and for lotteries that allow quicker resolutions in the earlier stages. A clear distinction between some patterns of preferences in the gains and loss domains was revealed. In gambles involving gains subjects preferred to have the highest probability on the first stage (and the lowest probability on the last stage), but displayed the opposite preferences for losses. A content analysis of the subjects' stated reasons for their choices identified eight major categories. The most frequently invoked were hope, fun, simplicity, stress and time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187-206
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Behavioral Decision Making
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2001


  • Chance mechanisms
  • Compound gambles
  • Expected utility
  • Multi-stage gambles
  • Reducibility principle
  • Violations of rationality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Decision Sciences
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Applied Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Strategy and Management


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