Friday, April 21, 2006

"The Balance of Risk"

"Sometimes things intended to make us safer may not make any improvement at all to our overall safety, and in rare instances they may actually make us less safe. The human tendency to take risks may trump all the efforts of the safety engineers." Cynthia Wood, at Damn Interesting:
"Dr. Gerald Wilde of Queens University in Ontario proposes a hypothesis he calls risk homeostasis. In a nutshell it proposes that human beings have a target level of risk with which they are most comfortable..." When an activity seems too risky, people adjust their behavior, and stay in their "target zone." But if people perceive that safeguards are in place, then people may be more likely to throw some caution to the winds. They take more chances. They increase the level of risk, back to their target zone.

"An additional complication for the already beleaguered safety engineers is that risk homeostasis is dependent not upon actual danger, but rather the perception of risk. Much of the gender and age differences in risk-taking behavior appear to stem less from differing desires for risk, and more from the individual's different evaluation of risk. Young people, and particularly young men, tend to evaluate their level of risk as much lower than older people would, even in identical situations. This implies that promoting safer behavior depends more upon altering the perceptions of the target population, rather than improving the safety of the environment– a much trickier proposition.

"What it all boils down to is that the law of unintended consequences is extraordinarily applicable when talking about safety innovations..."


Blogger BiPolar Guy said...

trapeze artists always get less radical when ther's no trampoline down below

9:17 AM  
Blogger David said...

I think the risk homeostsis theory is probably correct; however, there's another effect which pulls in the opposite direction. It seems that when people reach a certain level of security, they hungrily crave an ever-increasing level of same.

For example: in 1935, day-to-day life in America was much more dangerous than it is today--infectious diseases, industrial accidents, etc. But no one was raising safety issues about swing sets on playgrounds....

8:52 PM  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

An interesting bit picked up from SCL-90 research a few years ago. Alcoholics are much less likely to use their seat belts. But in support of the OP's hypothesis, they are more likely to wear their belts only when driving drunk.

6:51 PM  

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