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«Mental Accounting Matters RICHARD H. THALER Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago, USA ABSTRACT Mental accounting is the set of ...»

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Journal of Behavioral Decision Making

J. Behav. Dec. Making, 12: 183~206 (1999)

Mental Accounting Matters

RICHARD H. THALER

Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago, USA

ABSTRACT

Mental accounting is the set of cognitive operations used by individuals and

households to organize, evaluate, and keep track of financial activities. Making use of research on this topic over the past decade, this paper summarizes the current state of our knowledge about how people engage in mental accounting activities. Three components of mental accounting receive the most attention.

This first captures how outcomes are perceived and experienced, and how decisions are made and subsequently evaluated. The accounting system provides the inputs to be both ex ante and ex post cost-benefit analyses. A second component of mental accounting involves the assignment of activities to specific accounts. Both the sources and uses of funds are labeled in real as well as in mental accounting systems. Expenditures are grouped into categories (housing, food, etc.) and spending is sometimes constrained by implicit or explicit budgets.

The third component of mental accounting concerns the frequency with which accounts are evaluated and 'choice bracketing'. Accounts can be balanced daily, weekly, yearly, and so on, and can be defined narrowly or broadly. Each of the components of mental accounting violates the economic principle of fungibility.

As a result, mental accounting influences choice, that is, it matters. Copyright ~ 1999 John Wiley & Sons; Ltd.

KEY WORDS mental accoul;lting; choice bracketing; fungibility; budgeting.A former colleague of mine, a professor of finance, prides himself on being a thoroughly rational man. Long ago he adopted a clever strategy to deal with life's misfortunes. At the beginning of each year he establishes a target donation to the local United Way charity. Then, if anything untoward happens to him during the year, for example an undeserved speeding ticket, he simply deducts this loss from the United Way account. He thinks ofit as an insurance policy against small annoyances.*.A few years ago I gave a talk to a group of executives in Switzerland. After the conference my wife and I spent a week visiting the area. At that time the Swiss franc was at an all-time high relative to the US dollar, so the usual high prices in Switzerland were astronomical. My wife and I comforted ourselves that I had received a fee for the talk that would easily cover the outrageous prices for hotels * This strategy need not reduce his annual contribution to the United Way. If he makes his intended contribution too low he risks having 'uninsured' losses. So far he has not been 'charitable' enough to have this fund cover large losses, such as when a hurricane blew the roof off his beach house.

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and meals. Had I received the same fee a week earlier for a talk in New York though, the vacation would have been much less enjoyable.

A friend of mine was once shopping for a quilted bedspread. She went to a department store and was pleased to find a model she liked on sale. The spreads came in three sizes: double, queen and king.

The usual prices for these quilts were $200, $250 and $300 respectively, but during the sale they were all priced at only $150. My friend bought the king-size quilt and was quite pleased with her purchase, though the quilt did hang a bit over the sides of her double bed.

INTRODUCTION

The preceding anecdotes all illustrate the cognitive processes called mental accounting. What is mental accounting? Perhaps the easiest way to define it is to compare it with financial and managerial accounting as practised by organizations. According to my dictionary accounting is 'the system of recording and summarizing business and financial transactions in books, and analyzing, verifying, and reporting the results'. Of course, individuals and households also need to record, summarize, analyze, and report the results of transactions and other financial events. They do so for reasons similar to those which motivate organizations to use managerial accounting: to keep trace of where their money is going, and to keep spending under control. Mental accounting is a description of the ways they do these things.

How do people perform mental accounting operations? Regular accounting consists of numerous rules and conventions that have been codified over the years. You can look them up in a textbook.

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent source for the conventions of mental accounting; we can learn about them only by observing behavior and inferring the rules.

Three components of mental accounting receive the most attention here. The first captures how outcomes are perceived and experienced, and how decisions are made and subsequently evaluated. The accounting system provides the inputs to do both ex ante and ex post cost-benefit analyses. This component is illustrated by the anecdote above involving the purchase of the quilt. The consumer's choice can be understood by incorporating the value of the 'deal' (termed transaction utility) into the purchase decision calculus..

A second component of mental accounting involves the assignment of activities to specific accounts.





Both the sources and uses of funds are labeled in real as well as in mental accounting systems.

Expenditures are grouped into categories (housing, food, etc.) and spending is sometimes constrained by implicit or explicit budgets. Funds to spend are also labeled, both as flows (regular income versus windfalls) and as stocks (cash on hand, home equity, pension wealth, etc.). The first two anecdotes illustrate aspects of this categorization process. The vacation in Switzerland was made less painful because of the possibility of setting up a Swiss lecture mental account, from which the expenditures could be deducted. Similarly, the notional United Way mental account is a flexible way of making losses less painful.

The third component of mental accounting concerns the frequency with which accounts are evaluated and what Read, Loewenstein and Rabin (1998) have labeled 'choice bracketing'. Accounts can be balanced daily, weekly, yearly, and so on, and can be defined narrowly or broadly. A wellknown song implores poker players to 'never count your money while you're sitting at the table'. An analysis of dynamic mental accounting shows why this is excellent advice, in poker as well as in other situations involving decision making under uncertainty (such as investing).

The primary reason for studying mental accounting is to enhance our understanding of the psychology of choice. In general, understanding mental accounting processes helps us understand

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choice because mental accounting rules are not neutral.* That is, accounting decisions such as to which category to assign a purchase, whether to combine an outcome with others in that category, and how often to balance the 'books' can affect the perceived attractiveness of choices. They do so because mental accounting violates the economic notion of fungibility. Money in one mental account is not a perfect substitute for money in another account. Because of violations of fungibility, mental accounting matters.

The goal of this paper is to illustrate how mental accounting matters. To this end I draw upon research conducted over the past two decades. This describes where I think the field is now, having been informed by the research of many others, especially over the past few years.

THE FRAMING OF GAINS AND LOSSES

The value function We wish to understand the decision-making process of an individual or a household interacting in an economic environment. How does a person make economic decisions, such as what to buy, how much to save, and whether to buy or lease an item? And how are the outcomes of these financial transactions evaluated and experienced?

Following my earlier treatment of these questions (Thaler, 1980,1985) I assume that people perceive outcomes in terms of the value function of Kahneman and Tversky's (1979) prospect theory. The value function can be thought of as a representation of some central components of the human perceived pleasure machine. t It has three important features, each of which captures an essential element of

mental accounting:

(1) The value function is defined over gains and losses relative to some reference point. The focus on changes, rather than wealth levels as in expected utility theory, reflects the piecemeal nature of mental accounting. Transactions are often evaluated one at a time, rather than in conjunction with everything else.

(2) Both the gain and lossfunctions display diminishing sensitivity. That is, the gain function is concave and the loss function is convex. This feature reflects the basic psychophysical principle (the WeberFechner law) that the difference between $10 and $20 seems bigger than the difference between $1000 and $1010, irrespective of the sign.

(3) Loss aversion. Losing $100 hurts more than gaining $100 yields pleasure: v(x) -v(-x). The influence of loss aversion on mental accounting is enormous, as will become evident very quickly.

Decision frames The role of the value function in mental accounting is to describe how events are perceived and coded in making decisions. To introduce this topic, it is useful to define some terms. Tversky and Kahneman (1981, p. 456) define a mental accountt quite narrowlyas 'an outcome frame which specifies (i) the set * An accounting system is a way of aggregating and summarizing large amounts of data to facilitate good decision making. In an ideal world the accounting system would accomplish this task in such a way that the decision maker would make the same choice when presented with only the accounting data as she would if she had access to all the relevant data. This is what I mean by 'neutral'. In a sense, such an accounting system would provide decision makers with 'sufficient statistics'. Of course, achieving this goal is generally impossible, because something must be sacrificed in order to reduce the information the decision maker has to look at. Thus neither organizational nor mental accounting will achieve neutrality.

t Prospect theory predates Kahneman's (1994) important distinction between decision utility and experienced utility. In his terms, the prospect theory value function measures decision utility.

tActually, they use the term psychological account in their 1981 paper, following the terminology I used in my 1980 paper.

Later (Kahneman and Tversky, 1984) they suggest the better term 'mental account'.

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of elementary outcomes that are evaluated jointly and the manner in which they are combined and (ii) a reference outcome that is considered neutral or normal', (Typically, the reference point is the status quo.) According to this definition, a mental account is a frame for evaluation. I wish to use the term 'mental accounting' to describe the entire process of coding, categorizing, and evaluating events, so this narrow definition of a mental account is a bit confining. Accordingly, I will refer to simply outcome frames as 'entries'.

In a later paper, Kahneman and Tversky (1984, p. 347), propose three ways that outcomes might be framed: in terms of a minimal account, a topical account, or a comprehensive account. Comparing two options using the minimal account entails examining only the differences between the two options, disregarding all their common features. A topical account relates the consequences of possible choices to a reference level that is determined by the context within which the decision arises. A comprehensive account incorporates all other factors including current wealth, future earnings, possible outcomes of other probabilistic holdings, and so on. (Economic theory generally assumes that people make decisions using the comprehensive account.) The following example* illustrates that mental accounting

is topical:

Imagine that you are about to purchase a jacket for ($125)[$15] and a calculator for ($15)[$125]. The calculator salesman informs you that the calculator you wish to buy is on sale for ($10)[$120] at the other branch of the store, located 20 minutes drive away. Would you make the trip to the other store?



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