Underweighting of rare events in social interactions and its implications to the design of voluntary health applications

Ori Plonsky, Yefim Roth, Ido Erev

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research on small repeated decisions from experience suggests that people often behave as if they underweight rare events and choose the options that are frequently better. In a pandemic, this tendency implies complacency and reckless behavior. Furthermore, behavioral contagion exacerbates this problem. In two pre-registered experiments (Ntotal = 312), we validate these predictions and highlight a potential solution. Groups of participants played a repeated game in one of two versions. In the basic version, people clearly preferred the dangerous reckless behavior that was better most of the time over the safer responsible behavior. In the augmented version, we gave participants an additional alternative abstracting the use of an application that frequently saves time but can sometimes have high costs. This alternative was stochastically dominated by the responsible choice option and was thus normatively irrelevant to the decision participants made. Nevertheless, most participants chose the new(“irrelevant”) alternative, providing the first clear demonstration of underweighting of rare events in fully described social games. We discuss public policies that can make the responsible use of health applications better most of the time, thus helping them get traction despite being voluntary. In one field demonstration of this idea amid the COVID-19 pandemic, usage rates of a contact tracing application among nursing home employees more than tripled when using the app also started saving them a little time each day, and the high usage rates sustained over at least four weeks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)267-289
Number of pages23
JournalJudgment and Decision Making
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, Society for Judgment and Decision making. All rights reserved.


  • Behavioral game theory
  • COVID-19
  • Decisions from experience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Decision Sciences
  • Applied Psychology
  • Economics and Econometrics


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