Risk taking is a matter of format

Risk-taking is often associated with the character of a person. However, researchers have demonstrated that this behaviour greatly depends on the way people are presented a decision problem: most people decide to take risks when they face choices with negative outcomes (injuries), and choose safer options when they face positive consequences (dancing in the prom). Consequently, road safety, health promotion and injury prevention campaigns should convey risks in positive terms, and avoid communicating negative outcomes.


Risk-taking is often associated with the character of a person: some individuals are considered risk-takers and are said to lead risk-taking lives1. However, researchers have demonstrated that this behaviour greatly depends on the way people are presented a decision problem2, 3, 4. Indeed, most people decide to take risks when they face choices with negative outcomes3, 4 such as diseases or injuries. Conversely, most individuals choose safer options when they face positive consequences3, 4 like “dancing in the prom” or “playing with my children”.

To illustrate this idea, consider the following scenario: A chemical disaster is risking the lives of 600 hundred people in a nearby village. Experts offer two possible response strategies. Which one would you choose?

Response A, will save 200 lives with absolute certainty. Response B has a 1/3 chance to save 600 lives, and 2/3 chance to save zero lives.

Now imagine that, instead of A and B, you have these two other choices:

Response C , will let 400 people die, with absolute certainty. With Response D, there is 1/3 chance that no one will die, and 2/3 chance that everyone will die.

Although the difference between A and B is the same as the difference between C and D, most people choose A in the first version of the problem and D in the second. This result indicates that people are more willing to take risks in the face of adverse situations. It follows that road safety, health promotion and injury prevention campaigns should convey risks in positive terms, and avoid communicating negative outcomes.

References

  1. Vanderbilt, T. (2009). Traffic. Toronto: Random House.
  2. Slovic, P. Fischhoff, B, Lichestein, S. (1992). Informing the public about the risks from ionizing radiation. In Arkhes, H.R. & Hammond, K.R., Judgment and decision making. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  3. Tversky y Kahneman, (1979) Prospect theory: An analysis of decision making under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.
  4. Kahneman D. & Tversky, A. (1992) Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. In Arkhes, H.R. & Hammond, K.R., Judgment and decision making. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, MA.

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