School of Economics and Finance

No. 620: Are Some Deaths Worse Than Others? The Effect of 'Labelling' on People's Perceptions

Anne Spencer , Queen Mary, University of London
Judith Covey , University of Durham
Angela Robinson , University of East Anglia
Graham Loomes , University of East Anglia

December 1, 2007

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This paper sets out to explore the extent to which perceptions regarding the 'badness' of different types of deaths differ according to how those deaths are 'labelled' in the elicitation procedure. In particular, we are interested in whether responses to 'contextual' questions - where the specific context in which the deaths occur is known - differ from 'generic' questions - where the context is unknown. Further, we set out to test whether sensitivity to the numbers of deaths differs across the 'generic' and 'contextual' versions of the questions. We uncover evidence to suggest that both the perceived 'badness' of different types of deaths and sensitivity to the numbers of deaths may differ according to whether 'generic' or 'contextual' descriptions are used. Qualitative data suggested two reasons why responses to 'generic' and 'contextual' questions differed: firstly, some influential variables were omitted from the 'generic' descriptions and secondly, certain variables were interpreted somewhat differently once the context had been identified. The implications of our findings for 'generic' questions, such as those commonly used in health economics (for example, the EQ 5D), are discussed.

J.E.L classification codes: H5, I10

Keywords:Preferences, Context effects, Affect heuristic