Sebastian Bobadilla-Suarez, Cass R. Sunstein, and Tali Sharot, “Are Choosers Losers? The Propensity to Under-Delegate in the Face of Potential Gains and Losses.” February 15, 2016 (pdf, perhaps somewhat updated, available here).
• People seem to value control over decisions, and are willing to sacrifice (in terms of expected returns) to make a decision themselves rather than to delegate. Perhaps for decisions involving losses, however, people might prefer to delegate, to insulate themselves a bit from painful choices.
• This paper reports on two laboratory experiments that are conducted to look at delegation versus control. Sample sizes are rather small: 26 subjects for the first experiment, and 25 for the second. In some trials, participants can delegate the choice to an advisor, after being informed of the reliability and cost of the advisor. (In reality, the advisor is a computer player programmed with the appropriate reliabilities.)
• Both experiments start with a learning phase. Participants are shown two geometrical shapes, and are asked to pick the better one. They are not told what criteria go into “better,” but if they pick correctly, they receive a higher payoff (or avoid a bigger loss) than if they choose incorrectly. Unbeknownst to the players, there is no underlying rule for “better,” the computer just designates, randomly, one of the two shapes as better. But humans are good at finding patterns in random events!
• In the delegation phase of experiment one, participants are given the option, prior to being shown the shapes, to delegate their decision to an advisor (actually, a chooser) whose probability of choosing correctly is revealed in advance, along with the cost of using the advisor. After the delegate-or-not decision, the two shapes are revealed, a choice is made (although, if made by an advisor, not revealed), and onto the next round (60 in total). Subjects do not learn the outcome of individual trials, but are compensated at the end on a random subset of ten of the trials.
• Given that the subjects themselves have a 50% chance of choosing correctly, it is easy to determine when the expected monetary payoff to the subject is higher by delegating the decision to the advisor (thanks to those known probabilities and costs; incidentally, the price of using the advisor is only imposed if the advisor is used, and if the advisor chooses correctly).
• The advisors are configured (costs and accuracy) in such a way that the subjects would do best (in expected monetary terms) by delegating on half of the trials. Instead, subjects choose to delegate only about 30% of the time, whether they are choosing for gains or to avoid losses. The departures from “optimal” play are almost all in the direction of failing to delegate the decision when expected returns would have been higher with delegation.
• Subjects’ perceptions of their own abilities to choose are canvassed, and the aversion to delegation is not the result of excessive optimism with respect to the accuracy of their own choices.
• The second experiment is nearly identical to the first one, except that the decision to choose or to delegate is now made each round after the shapes themselves have been revealed. Still, there is substantial, even slightly worse, under-delegation.
• The fact that under-delegation also is present in the “loss” trials indicates that people, at least in this setting, don’t seem to want to shield themselves from painful decisions through delegation.