Modern economic theory rests on the basic assumption that agents’ choices are guided by preferences. The question of where such preferences might have come from has traditionally been ignored or viewed agnostically. The biological approach to economic behavior addresses the issue of the origins of economic preferences explicitly. This approach assumes that economic preferences are shaped by the forces of natural selection. For example, an important theoretical insight delivered thus far by this approach is that individuals ought to be more risk averse to aggregate than to idiosyncratic risk. Additionally the approach has delivered an evolutionary basis for hedonic and adaptive utility and an evolutionary rationale for “theory of mind.” Related empirical work has studied the evolution of time preferences, loss aversion, and explored the deep evolutionary determinants of long-run economic development.
Nikolaus Robalino and Arthur Robson
Hendrik Schmitz and Svenja Winkler
The terms information and risk aversion play central roles in healthcare economics. While risk aversion is among the main reasons for the existence of health insurance, information asymmetries between insured individual and insurance company potentially lead to moral hazard or adverse selection. This has implications for the optimal design of health insurance contracts, but whether there is indeed moral hazard or adverse selection is ultimately an empirical question. Recently, there was even a debate whether the opposite of adverse selection—advantageous selection—prevails. Private information on risk aversion might weigh out information asymmetries regarding risk type and lead to more insurance coverage of healthy individuals (instead of less insurance coverage in adverse selection). Information and risk preferences are important not only in health insurance but more generally in health economics. For instance, they affect health behavior and, consequently, health outcomes. The degree of risk aversion, the ability to perceive risks, and the availability of information about risks partly explain why some individuals engage in unhealthy behavior while others refrain from smoking, drinking, or the like. Information has several dimensions. Apart from information on one’s personal health status, risk preferences, or health risks, consumer information on provider quality or health insurance supply is central in the economics of healthcare. Even though healthcare systems are necessarily highly regulated throughout the world, all systems at least allow for some market elements. These typically include the possibility of consumer choice, for instance, regarding health insurance coverage or choice of medical provider. An important question is whether consumer choice elements work in the healthcare sector—that is, whether consumers actually make rational or optimal decisions—and whether more information can improve decision quality.
In many countries of the world, consumers choose their health insurance coverage from a large menu of often complex options supplied by private insurance companies. Economic benefits of the wide choice of health insurance options depend on the extent to which the consumers are active, well informed, and sophisticated decision makers capable of choosing plans that are well-suited to their individual circumstances. There are many possible ways how consumers’ actual decision making in the health insurance domain can depart from the standard model of health insurance demand of a rational risk-averse consumer. For example, consumers can have inaccurate subjective beliefs about characteristics of alternative plans in their choice set or about the distribution of health expenditure risk because of cognitive or informational constraints; or they can prefer to rely on heuristics when the plan choice problem features a large number of options with complex cost-sharing design. The second decade of the 21st century has seen a burgeoning number of studies assessing the quality of consumer choices of health insurance, both in the lab and in the field, and financial and welfare consequences of poor choices in this context. These studies demonstrate that consumers often find it difficult to make efficient choices of private health insurance due to reasons such as inertia, misinformation, and the lack of basic insurance literacy. These findings challenge the conventional rationality assumptions of the standard economic model of insurance choice and call for policies that can enhance the quality of consumer choices in the health insurance domain.