I combine theory and methodology from economics, psychology, and neuroscience to understand how people decide, why they make wrong decisions, and how to make them better choosers. My research focused on how economic preferences change over the lifespan and contexts, including how thirst, being observed, outdoor luminance, as well as the structure of current and past choice affect behavior.
I have been awarded over $33 million in grants as a Chief Investigator, including ARC Centre of Excellence, DECRA, Discovery, and Linkage grants. In 2017 I received the Award from the Society for Neuroeconomics for my contributions to our understanding of decision-making.
Tymula A. and Wang X. (2021) Increased risk-taking, not loss tolerance, drives adolescents’ propensity to gamble more under peer observation, [supplement] accepted at the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization
Gainsbury S. M., Black N., Blaszczynski A., Callaghan S., Clancey G., Starcevic V., Tymula A. (2020) Reducing Internet gambling harms using behavioural science: A stakeholder framework, Frontiers in Psychiatry, section Addictive Disorders 11:598589. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.598589
Weinrabe A., Chung H., Tymula A., Tranand J., Hickie I. (2020) Economic Rationality in Young People with Emerging Mood Disorder, Journal of Neuroscience, Economics, and Psychology
Tymula (2019) Adolescents are more impatient and inconsistent, not more risk-taking when observed by peers – a comprehensive study of adolescent behavior under peer observation, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organisation, 166:735-750
Chung, H., Glimcher. P.W., Tymula, A. (2019) An Experimental Comparison of Risky and Riskless Choice – Limitations of Prospect Theory and Expected Utility Theory, American Economic Journal: Micro, 11(3):34-67
Rosato A. and Tymula A. (2019) Loss Aversion and Competition in Vickrey Auctions: Money Ain’t No Good, Games and Economic Behavior, 115: 188-208
Tymula, A., Woelbert, E., Glimcher, P.W. (2016) Flexible Valuations for Consumer Goods as Measured by the Becker-DeGroot-Marschak Mechanism. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, 9(2):65-77.
Gilaie-Dotan, S.,+ Tymula, A.,+ Cooper, N., Kable, J., Glimcher, P.W., Levy, I. (2014) Neuroanatomy predicts individual risk attitudes. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(37) (+shared first author, featured article)
Tymula, A., Rosenberg Belmaker, L.A., Ruderman, L., Glimcher, P.W., Levy, I. (2013) Like cognitive function, decision-making across the lifespan shows profound age-related changes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(42)
Yamada, H.+, Tymula, A.+, Louie, K., Glimcher, P.W. (2013) Thirst-dependent risk preferences in monkeys identify a primitive form of wealth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(39) (+shared first author)
Tymula, A.+, Rosenberg Belmaker, L.A.+, Roy, A., Ruderman, L., Manson, K., Glimcher, P.W., Levy, I. (2012) Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior is driven by tolerance to ambiguity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (42):17135-17140 (+ shared first author)
Levy, I., Rosenberg-Belmaker, L.A., Manson, K., Tymula, A., Glimcher, P.W. (2012) Measuring the subjective value of risky and ambiguous options using experimental economics and functional MRI methods. Journal of Visualized Experiments, 67
Published book chapters
Tymula A. (2019). Brain Morphometry for Economists: How do Brain Volume Constraints Affect Our Choices? in Biophysical Measurement in Experimental Social Science Research, Foster (Eds.), ELSEVIER
Tymula A. and Glimcher P.W. (2018). Emotions through the lens of economic theory. In Fox, A. S., Lapate, R. C., Shackman, A. J. & Davidson, R. J. (Eds.), The Nature of Emotion. Fundamental questions (2nd Edition). New York: Oxford University Press
- featured on Scientific American Blog Network
- written for the Young Minds of the 2014 USA Science and Engineering Festival
Book review of After Phrenology: Neural Reuse and the Interactive Brain, Michael L. Anderson. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA (2014) in Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 51, December 2015, p. 279–280
Working papers under review
Research in behavioral economics and reinforcement learning has given rise to two influential theories describing human economic choice under uncertainty. The first, prospect theory, assumes that decision-makers use static mathematical functions, utility and probability weighting, to calculate the values of alternatives. The second, reinforcement learning theory, posits that dynamic mathematical functions update the values of alternatives based on experience through reward prediction error (RPE). To date, these theories have been examined in isolation without reference to one another. Therefore, it remains unclear whether RPE affects a decision-maker’s utility and/or probability weighting functions, or whether these functions are indeed static as in prospect theory. Here, we propose a dynamic prospect theory model that combines prospect theory and RPE, and test this combined model using choice data on gambling behavior of captive macaques. We found that under standard prospect theory, monkeys, like humans, had a concave utility function. Unlike humans, monkeys exhibited a concave, rather than inverse-S shaped, probability weighting function. Our dynamic prospect theory model revealed that probability distortions, not the utility of rewards, solely and systematically varied with RPE: after a positive RPE, the estimated probability weighting functions became more concave, suggesting more optimistic belief about receiving rewards and over-weighted subjective probabilities at all probability levels. Thus, the probability perceptions in laboratory monkeys are not static even after extensive training, and are governed by a dynamic function well captured by the algorithmic feature of reinforcement learning. This novel evidence supports combining these two major theories to capture choice behavior under uncertainty.
We present a descriptive model of choice with normative foundations based on how the brain is thought to represent value. An individual’s behavior is fully described by two primitives: an individual’s expectation and one free parameter we call “predisposition’. The model captures the same apparent preference phenomena illustrated by Prospect Theory but unlike Prospect Theory accounts for individual heterogeneity in parameters, employs far fewer parameters than full prospect theory, and retains neurobiological plausibility as a causal model of the choice process. Additionally, our theory makes a series of novel predictions amenable to future testing and includes an alternative explanation for endowment effect.
Based on recent discoveries in economics, neuroscience, and psychology, we hypothesize that pure exposure to high-payoff or low-payoff gambles can change people’s subsequent reported valuations of gambles and confirm this hypothesis in a laboratory experiment. In particular, the same participants within the same experimental session provide higher valuations for the same gambles after they have been exposed to low-payoff gambles than after they have been exposed to high-payoff gambles. These results are consistent with the current understanding of how the nervous system encodes payoffs and imply that even brief experiences that do not change wealth can impact an individual’s reported valuations of risky options.
Cheung S. L., Tymula A., Wang X. (2020) Present Bias for Monetary and Dietary Rewards: Evidence from Chinese Teenagers, revision requested from Experimental Economics
Economists model self-control problems through time-inconsistent preferences. Empirical tests of these preferences largely rely on experimental elicitation methods using monetary rewards, with several recent studies failing to find present bias for money. In this paper, we compare estimates of present bias for money with estimates for healthy and unhealthy foods. In a within-subjects longitudinal experiment with 697 low-income Chinese high school students we find strong present bias for both money and food, and that individual measures of present bias are moderately correlated across reward types. Our experimental measures of time preferences over money predict field behaviours better than preferences elicited over foods.
We study economic decision-making of 284 people with obesity and pre-diabetes who participated in a 6-months randomised controlled trial to control weight and prevent diabetes. To elicit preferences, we use incentive-compatible experimental tasks that participants completed during their medical screening examination. We find that, on average, participants are risk averse, show no evidence of present bias, and have impatience levels comparable to healthy samples described in the international literature. Variations in present bias and impatience are not significantly associated with variations in markers of obesity. But we find a significant negative association between risk tolerance and BMI and other markers of obesity for women. A 1 standard deviation increase in risk tolerance is associated with a 0.2 standard deviation drop in BMI and waist circumference. Impatience moderates the link between risk tolerance and obesity. We replicate the key finding of interaction effects between risk and time preferences using survey data from a nationally representative sample of 6,281 Australians with similar characteristics. Deviating markedly from the literature, we conclude that risk tolerance brings benefits for health outcomes if combined with patience in this understudied but highly policy-relevant population.
We present a neuroeconomic model for risky choice that species a utility function that is context-dependent. We demonstrate how and under what conditions the model generates choice (but not preference) reversals. In a laboratory experiment, we test the predictions of our model and compare it against other popular models of context-dependent choice. We nd that divisive normalization captures violations of the independence of irrelevant alternatives that cannot be otherwise explained with salience theory, range normalization, or attraction eect theories. Moreover, we identify a new setting in which the well-established attraction effects do not occur.
The finding that individuals are ambiguity averse in the domain of medium likelihood gains is robust across laboratory studies. We conducted a laboratory experiment to examine whether we can lower this aversion to ambiguity by giving participants an illusion of control over the probability of winning by allowing them to choose the winning color in what objectively are 50-50 gambles. We found that while our illusion of control manipulation does not increase participants’ preference for risky gambles with known probability of winning, it does increase participants’ tolerance for ambiguous gambles with unknown probability of winning. When the illusion of control is absent, the structural model estimates of ambiguity tolerance are 29% lower. Our results highlight the importance of considering the illusion of control in the estimation of ambiguity attitudes.
We estimate whether risk preferences are affected by traumatic events by using a unique survey of Sri Lankan twins which contains information on individual’s exposure to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, participation as a combatant in the civil war, validated measures of mental health and risk preferences, and a rich set of control variables. Our estimation strategy utilises variation in experiences within twin pairs and allows us to explore wealth shocks and/or changes in mental health as mechanisms. We find that both events lead to less risk aversion, a result that is not driven by mental health or wealth changes.
We use an incentivized experiment to measure the risk and time preferences of truant adolescents and their parents. We find that adolescent preferences do not predict school attendance and that a unique police-school partnership program targeting school absences was most effective in reducing the truancy of adolescents with relatively risk-averse parents.
Non – traditional research output
Decision-making and ageing exhibit at the Museum of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC (part of the Life Lab exhibit)
- on display May 2012 – September 2018