Behavioral economics has captured the interest of scholars and the general public by demonstrating ways in which individuals make decisions that appear irrational. While increasing attention is being focused on the implications of this research for the design of risk-reducing policies, less attention has been paid to how it affects the economic valuation of policy consequences. This article considers the latter issue, reviewing the behavioral economics literature and discussing its implications for the conduct of benefit-cost analysis, particularly in the context of environmental, health, and safety regulations. We explore three concerns: using estimates of willingness to pay or willingness to accept compensation for valuation, considering the psychological aspects of risk when valuing mortality-risk reductions, and discounting future consequences. In each case, we take the perspective that analysts should avoid making judgments about whether values are “rational” or “irrational.” Instead, they should make every effort to rely on well-designed studies, using ranges, sensitivity analysis, or probabilistic modeling to reflect uncertainty. More generally, behavioral research has led some to argue for a more paternalistic approach to policy analysis. We argue instead for continued focus on describing the preferences of those affected, while working to ensure that these preferences are based on knowledge and careful reflection.
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