Risk Compensation

Speaking of balancing perceived effort with perceived reward/risk, there’s this, in an April 2009 Smithsonian piece about seatbelts and driving safety:

“The concept is that humans have an inborn tolerance for risk — meaning that as safety features are added to vehicles and roads, drivers feel less vulnerable and tend to take more chances. The feeling of greater security tempts us to be more reckless. Behavioral scientists call it ‘risk compensation.’

Hence, when roads and cars are made perceptibly safer, people tend to drive faster and more imprudently.  The same risk compensation has also been shown to be true in other fields, e.g., “children who wear protective sports equipment engage in rougher play. Forest rangers say wilderness hikers take greater risks if they know that a trained rescue squad is on call. Public health officials cite evidence that enhanced HIV treatment can lead to riskier sexual behavior. ”

(Not everyone agrees that risk compensation exists — or if it does, not to a measurable degree — and unfortunately the article barely mentions any specific studies supporting the idea, and then doesn’t give details or numbers.)

Now not only do some researchers agree that we compensate significantly  for reduced risk, but they are also positing a risk compensation corollary: “humans don’t merely tolerate risk, they seek it; each of us has an innate tolerance level of risk, and in any given situation we will act to reduce — or increase — the perceived risk, depending on that level.”  One researcher calls it “risk homeostasis.”

This is quite similar to the morality set-point idea; there’s such a thing as being too safe, and there’s such a thing as being too good. We don’t just want to be safe or good; we want to be the right amount of safe or good, and there is a perceived right amount, a balance that feels right to us.

I’m not persuaded of this risk/goodness homeostasis idea — I’m not sure it reflects my own experience — but it’s interesting to think about, and to think about the consequences in society of such a risk/goodness strategy.  One strategy to reduce societal risky behaviour, mentioned in the article,  is to reset risk thermostats by rewarding safe behavior, which seems to be effective, though controversial.


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