Peter Ayton, City University
“Better the devil you don’t know: preference for known or uncertain probabilities and the risk of failure”
Imagine being obliged to play Russian roulette – twice (if you are lucky enough to survive the first game). Each time you must spin the chambers of a six-chambered revolver before pulling the trigger. However you do have one choice: You can choose to either (a) use a revolver which contains only 2 bullets or (b) blindly pick one of two other revolvers: one revolver contains 3 bullets; the other just 1 bullet. Whichever particular gun you pick you must use every time you play. Surprisingly, option (b) offers a better chance of survival. We discuss a general theorem implying, with some specified caveats, that a system’s probability of surviving repeated ‘demands’ improves as uncertainty concerning the probability of surviving one demand increases. Nonetheless our behavioural experiments confirm the counterintuitive nature of the Russian roulette and other kindred problems: most subjects prefer option (a). We discuss how uncertain probabilities reduce risks for repeated exposure, why people intuitively eschew them and some policy implications for safety regulation.