In a previous post, I pointed out that the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, might cause people to overestimate the risks oil spills. I also expressed my concern with Metro Vancouver’s decision to evaluate the risks of oil tanker traffic just while the events on and off the coasts of Florida are unfolding.
As it happens, I recently came across a paper that sheds more light on the issue*. The study shows how experiencing recent, adverse events creates a psychological discrepancy between beliefs and actions. Indeed, researchers found that, immediately after a bad experience, people behave more cautiously, and yet believe that the risk of experiencing a similar event decreases (“this won’t happen to me again”).
This means that recent oil spill might distort the evaluation in two ways:
- The risks of oil tanker traffic could be underestimated.
- The policy decisions could be overly cautious and harsh.
Of course, I am not claiming that this will happen, I am only advocating for a composed evaluation. Being aware of potential biases in judgement, is the first step in working around our own irrationalities.
* Barron, G. & Yechian, E. (2009). The coexistence of overestimation and underweighting of rare events and the contingent recency effect. Judgment and Decision Making, 4, 6, 447–460.