SANDRO AMBUEHL

SANDRO AMBUEHL



Assistant Professor
Department of Management, UTSC
Rotman School of Management

Research Interests
Behavioral Economics
Experimental Economics
Household Finance
Repugnant Transactions
Rational Inattention

Contact Information
105 St. George Street
Toronto, ON, M5S 3E6
Canada
+1 (647) 981 63 84
sandro.ambuehl@utoronto.ca



Publications

More Money, More Problems? Can High Pay Be Coercive and Repugnant? (with Muriel Niederle and Alvin E. Roth) 
American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 2015, 105(5): 357-360 
IRBs can disallow high incentives they deem coercive. A vignette study on MTurk concerning participation in medical trials shows that a substantial minority of subjects concurs. They think high incentives cause more regret, and that more people would be better off without the opportunity to participate. We model observers as judging the ethicality of incentives by partially using their own utility. The model predicts that payments are repugnant only to the extent that they affect the participation decision, and more so for larger transactions. Incentivizing poorer participants is more repugnant, and in-kind incentives are less repugnant than monetary incentives. 

American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 2017, 107(5): 91-95.
Our recent working paper (Ambuehl, Ockenfels, and Stewart, 2017) shows theoretically and experimentally that people with higher costs of information processing respond more to an increase in the incentive for a complex transaction, and decide to participate based on a worse understanding of its consequences. Here, we address the resulting tradeoff between the principle of informed consent and the principle of free contract. Respondents to our vignette study on oocyte donation overwhelmingly favor the former, and support policies that require donors to thoroughly understand the transaction. This finding helps design markets that are not only efficient, but also considered ethical. 


Working Papers

Media coverage: Maginal Revolution ("the most interesting job market paper of the year"), Washington PostFrankfurter Allgemeine ZeitungBugsfeed 
Much of economics assumes that higher incentives increase participation in a transaction only because they exceed more people’s reservation price. This paper shows theoretically and experimentally that when information about the consequences is costly, higher incentives also change reservation prices to further increase participation. A higher incentive makes people gather information in a way that is more favorable to participation—as if they were persuading themselves to participate. Hence, incentives change not only what people choose, but also what they believe their choices entail. This result informs the debate about laws around the world that severely restrict incentives for transactions such as organ donation, surrogate motherhood, human egg donation, and medical trial participation. It helps bridge a gap between economists on the one hand and the policy makers and ethicists on the other.

Unraveling Over Time (with Vivienne Groves, submitted) 
We study unraveling in a two-sided, one-to-one matching market. The market operates over an extended period of time in which information about students arrives gradually. In equilibrium, hiring times are dispersed, as em- ployers hire the most promising students as soon as the benefit from avoid- ing competition outweighs the informational loss associated with hiring early. There is no relation between employers' desirability and their hiring times. Both predictions are consistent with our data on the market for U.S. federal appellate court clerks. Our results and policy implications differ substantially from those in two-period models of unraveling, which dominate the literature. 

The Effect of Financial Education on the Quality of Decision Making (with B. Douglas Bernheim and Annamaria Lusardi, submitted) 
Media Coverage: Financial Times
We introduce a method for measuring the quality of financial decision making built around a notion of financial competence, which gauges the alignment between individuals' choices and those they would make if they properly understood their opportunities. We use it to document the potential pitfalls of the types of brief rhetoric-laden interventions commonly used for adult financial education. Motivational rhetoric can render the effects of such interventions indiscriminate even when people appear to understand and internalize the targeted concepts. Conventional methods of evaluation involving financial literacy, self-reported decision strategies, and directional effects on choices do not reliably detect these deficiencies. 

Peer Effects in Financial Decision Making - A Case of the Blind Leading the Blind? (with B. Douglas Bernheim, Fulya Ersoy, and Donhatai Harris) 
Often, people consult with others for advice before they make financial decisions. Previous research argues that such communication amounts to a case of the blind leading the blind. In this paper, we document that it can be beneficial, and explore mechanisms. In our laboratory experiment, subjects make private decisions about investments involving compound interest both before and after they communicate with a randomly assigned partner. Communication not only improves decision making for the specific tasks they have sought advice about, but subjects successfully generalize these skills to novel decision problems. We find that communication is most beneficial when pair members’ skills are at similar levels — the transmission of financial competence requires a common language, and is not merely a case of information flowing from those who have it to those who do not. Finally, communication leads subjects to reevaluate their privately revealed time preferences. Discount rates move towards the communication partners’ rate, and do so to a larger extent if the partner is more patient. We suggest policies to improve the quality of financial decision making.

Belief Updating and the Demand for Information (with Shengwu Li, conditionally accepted at Games and Economic Behavior
How do individuals value noisy information that guides economic decisions? In our laboratory experiment, we find that individuals underreact to increasing the informativeness of a signal, thus undervalue high-quality information, and that they disproportionately prefer information that may yield certainty. Both biases are entirely due to non-standard belief updating, rather than due to non-standard risk preferences. We find that individuals differ consistently in their responsiveness to information - the extent that their beliefs move upon observing signals. Individual parameters of responsiveness to information have out-of-sample explanatory power in two distinct choice environments and are unrelated to proxies for mathematical aptitude. 


Work in Progress

For They Know Not What They Do. Incentives with Costly Information Processing. (with Axel Ockenfels and Colin Stewart) 
Who responds to incentives when individuals acquire costly information about the consequences of participation before making a decision? Examples of such transactions include living organ donation, human egg donation, surrogate motherhood, and others. We show in a model of rational inattention that whenever subjects acquire a positive amount of information, subjects with higher marginal costs of information respond more strongly to increased incentives, and decide to participate based on worse information. Consequently, with higher incentives, the pool of participants consists of a larger fraction of individuals with high costs of information and a less complete understanding of the consequences of their decision. Our experiment confirms these predictions. Subjects respond more strongly to increased incentives not only when we experimentally make information acquisition more cognitively demanding, but also for subjects who have a lower measured IQ. 


The Empirical Moral Limits of Markets 
Many transactions such as kidney donation, experiment participation and surrogate motherhood cannot legally be done in exchange for money, or only under tight restrictions. When and why do people feel a need to paternalistically prevent others from engaging in voluntary transactions? Subjects in my experiment decide whether to prevent future participants from being offered a voluntary transaction of eating disgust-evoking items (such as large scorpions) at a variety of prices. A large fraction of transactions are prevented. Subjects dislike incentives for the very reason that they influence others' behavior -- they more often prevent an incentive to someone who has already refuse to participate at a lower incentive than to a random future participant. Subjects are particularly concerned about incentives if they believe the incentivized person lacks well-defined preferences over the transaction. Specifically, they prevent transactions more often if they believe the incentive itself influences others' reservation prices. These comparative statics arise from gut feelings rather than careful deliberation: the modal participant is a naive paternalist who imposes his own preferences onto others by allowing the offers he would accept himself, and preventing those he would reject. These findings help understand the moral limits of markets, and provide guidance towards designing markets that are less likely viewed as morally repugnant. 

Unknown Unknowns: Metacompetence in Financial Decision Making (with B. Douglas Bernheim, and Fulya Ersoy)