Revenue Maximization with an Uncertainty-Averse Buyer

Shuchi Chawla, Kira Goldner, J. Benjamin Miller, Emmanouil Pountourakis

Most work in mechanism design assumes that buyers are risk neutral; some considers risk aversion arising due to a non-linear utility for money. Yet behavioral studies have established that real agents exhibit risk attitudes which cannot be captured by any expected utility model. We initiate the study of revenue-optimal mechanisms under buyer behavioral models beyond expected utility theory. We adopt a model from prospect theory which arose to explain these discrepancies and incorporates agents under-weighting uncertain outcomes. In our model, an event occurring with probability $x < 1$ is worth strictly less to the agent than $x$ times the value of the event when it occurs with certainty. In contrast to the risk-neutral setting, the optimal mechanism may be randomized and appears challenging to find, even for a single buyer and a single item for sale. Nevertheless, we give a characterization of the optimal mechanism which enables positive approximation results. In particular, we show that under a reasonable bounded-risk-aversion assumption, posted pricing obtains a constant approximation. Notably, this result is "risk-robust" in that it does not depend on the details of the buyer's risk attitude. Finally, we examine a dynamic setting in which the buyer is uncertain about his future value. In contrast to positive results for a risk-neutral buyer, we show that the buyer's risk aversion may prevent the seller from approximating the optimal revenue in a risk-robust manner.

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