Closing a Mental Account: The Realization Effect for Gains and Losses

Published in Experimental Economics, 2021

Recommended citation: Merkle, Christoph, Jan Müller-Dethard, and Martin Weber. (2021). "Closing a Mental Account: The Realization Effect for Gains and Losses." Experimental Economics, 24(1), 303-329.

How do risk attitudes change after experiencing gains or losses? For the case of losses, Imas (2016) shows that subsequent risk-taking behavior depends on whether these losses have been realized or not. After a realized loss, individuals’ risk-taking decreases, whereas it increases after an unrealized (paper) loss. He refers to this asymmetry as the realization effect. In this study, we derive theoretical predictions for risk-taking after paper and realized gains, and for investment opportunities with different skewness. We experimentally test these predictions and, at the same time, replicate Imas’ original study. Independent of a prior gain or loss, we show that subsequent risk-taking is higher when outcomes remain unrealized. However, we find no evidence of a realization effect for non-positively skewed lotteries. While the first result suggests that the effect is more general, the second result reveals its boundary conditions.

Open access journal version

JEL codes: D11, D14, D81, G11.

Keywords: Realization Effect, Mental Accounting, House Money Effect, Risk Taking.