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Old 01-17-2017, 10:14 AM   #1
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Risk homeostasis

Rather than hijacking another thread, which seems to have about run its course anyway, I decided to open a new discussion on a concept that the other thread made me think about: risk homeostasis. In my previous lives as a rock climber and a motorcyclist, the subject of risk was often discussed. For some people, the risk of either of these activities is too much; for other people, these activities don't offer a sufficient level of risk to be interesting, so they have to search for even more exciting things to do.

For example, my neighbor thinks my Airstreaming trips are too dangerous because of risk of accident, etc., so he won't engage in that activity. Some people I used to climb with wouldn't climb unless they were wearing a helmet to protect from falling rocks. For others, the use of any safety devices made climbing too boring, so they preferred to climb without even ropes.

The theory of risk homeostasis posits that for each of us, there is a level of risk that has a maximum and a MINIMUM comfortable level. If we engage in an activity that falls outside of that zone, we will make whatever adjustments we can to bring our risk level back within the comfort zone, or if that is not possible, we will probably avoid the activity (absent a compelling reason to continue, such as a spouse who won't be happy unless we attend dance classes with her, for example). I suppose there might be ways to bring the risk of dance classes up into my risk homeostasis comfort zone, but they might be detrimental to the long-term health of my marriage, so a little boredom might be a better alternative.

An example of risk homeostasis would be the use of helmets while motorcycling. Some people with a high risk tolerance would prefer to motorcycle without wearing a helmet. Others would wear helmets whether required to by law or not. But the theory of risk homeostasis says that members of EITHER group will ride more aggressively if they are wearing helmets than they would if they weren't, in order to adjust their preferred risk level to the actual perceived risk. Another example might be what we are willing to do to amuse ourselves as we are driving: how many gadgets we play with, food or drinks we consume, or even how fast we go related to the design constraints of our vehicle/trailer combination. Whether we decide to eat a sandwich at the same time we are adjusting the GPS depends on whether we are above, below or within our risk homeostasis zone.

People make decisions based on their perceived levels of risk, which are feelings, as opposed to actual levels of risk, which are facts. I could present facts to my neighbor indicating that Airstreaming is not as high risk an activity as he thinks it is, but if that doesn't change his perceptions, it won't be convincing to him. People can be given facts showing that driving without a seatbelt is more dangerous than they think it is, but if they don't perceive the level of actual risk to be outside of their risk homeostasis zone, they won't feel motivated to wear one.

So for a person's behavior to change, other than by mandate, they must change their perception of the actual level of risk so that it moves outside of their risk homeostasis zone, which generally requires more than a recitation of facts that someone can agree or disagree with or choose to ignore.
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Old 01-17-2017, 10:25 AM   #2
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Thanks for starting this thread - could be a great discussion.

Some clarifying questions:

1) are there particular sources you like that you can point to with a little more background on the concept

2) some of your examples suggest (to me anyway) there may be a level of subconscious decision making (for example - eating while fiddling with a GPS while driving) - if a "rational actor" thought about that combination logically, it would never happen - so how much of this risk factor is subconscious

3) is there a distinction between personal/individual risk and involving others in risky behavior without their consent (and again, perhaps there's a subconscious element here). Example - a fellow camper knows his dog very well and has no problem letting him wander the campground - but has no idea about other campers and/or how their dogs may react when on a leash and confronted with what they might perceive as a threat. Many other examples we could discuss - how does the impact to others play in to thought process?

Thanks again!!
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Old 01-17-2017, 10:43 AM   #3
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Well, I know some of my limits:
1. No jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.
2. I'm happy to watch others climb the sides of mountains.
3. Scuba is okay, with appropriate training and equipment. I am certified for Night, Wreck, and Ice diving. But then again, I took lots of classes and dove with lots of redundant equipment.
4. I will listen to a text over the radio in my TV. If I need to reply, it can wait until I can stop somewhere or the DW can handle the reply.
5. Cell phone calls are done hands free and kept short. Often ignored if in heavy traffic.
6. My personal speed limit is 65, towing or not. Ah, life in the slow lane!
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Old 01-17-2017, 10:53 AM   #4
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Risk homeostasis

Quote:
Originally Posted by SteveSueMac View Post
Thanks for starting this thread - could be a great discussion.

Some clarifying questions:

1) are there particular sources you like that you can point to with a little more background on the concept

2) some of your examples suggest (to me anyway) there may be a level of subconscious decision making (for example - eating while fiddling with a GPS while driving) - if a "rational actor" thought about that combination logically, it would never happen - so how much of this risk factor is subconscious

3) is there a distinction between personal/individual risk and involving others in risky behavior without their consent (and again, perhaps there's a subconscious element here). Example - a fellow camper knows his dog very well and has no problem letting him wander the campground - but has no idea about other campers and/or how their dogs may react when on a leash and confronted with what they might perceive as a threat. Many other examples we could discuss - how does the impact to others play in to thought process?

Thanks again!!

This subject first arose in a BMW motorcycle group I belong to, so I'm not sure what the source was, although there are many hits if you search the Internet.

I don't know about subconscious, but the upper and lower levels of a person's risk homeostasis zone are determined by feelings of fear on the topside and boredom on the low side, with a comfort zone in the middle. These are feelings, not cognitive thoughts, so I would imagine they arise from the subconscious, or at least unconscious part of the mind. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable in psychology than I could explain better.

Anyone can voluntarily breach the lower end of the risk homeostasis comfort zone, and I'm sure we often do. Examples would include riding a motorcycle at a boringly slow pace for me, because my passenger would become afraid if I rode faster, or refraining from doing things at like fiddling with the GPS while driving for the same reason. It is also possible to breach the upper end of the zone, because of group pressure or internal drives. This is more problematic because when we operate in a fear zone, we may be less aware, our movements less responsive, and we may become more accident prone. Of course, if you want to win an Olympic gold medal or be a race car driver, I suppose you have to learn to live in the fear zone some of the time to succeed.
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Old 01-18-2017, 12:29 PM   #5
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It is worth mentioning that risk homeostasis is closer to hypothesis than theory, as there isn't wide support for it. It's arguable that there are more detractors than supporters for the theory, at least based on what I've read about it.

One related issue that I think is pretty well supported in the literature is humans' poor risk assessment ability. We do a pretty bad job of picking between complex risk categories because our brains are wired so closely to emotion.

I'm on the waiting list at my library for "The Undoing Project" by Michael Lewis. The research that Kahneman and Tversky have done for decades highlights some of the background for our poor judgement. One such example is using "recency bias," where we see something like a terrible accident in the roadway and drive more carefully/slowly for a while afterwards. I think a lot of the concepts in that book will be applicable to this conversation about risk.
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Old 01-19-2017, 10:05 AM   #6
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Psychology, of course, is much less of an exact science than physics. If you drop the psychological equivalent of a cannon ball and an apple off the leaning tower of Pizza, sometimes they will hit the ground at the same time and sometimes they won't. When the subject of risk homeostasis was discussed on my BMW motorcycle board, it resonated with many of us, because it seemed to express the personal conclusions many of us had reached on our own. But then BMW motorcycle riders are a strange bunch. They choose to engage in a risky activity for no other reason than personal enjoyment, and then cover themselves with more protective stuff than any other group of riders, even in the middle of summer when it's hot and all that gear is uncomfortable (giving rise to the expression ATTGAT: all the gear all the time). So even if risk homeostasis might apply to BMW motorcycle riders, it might not be as applicable to groups of people who avoid risks entirely, because for them risk would never be fun, or groups of (some) Harley riders, who might prefer to ride drunk dressed only in their tee shirts, jeans, and no helmets, if given the opportunity.


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