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.

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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”.

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Impaired driving: Media is helping!

When reporters explain the causes of a collision and emphasize on drivers’ choices, they are also educating the public on how to prevent crashes, injuries, or fatalities. In fact, experimental studies have demonstrated that this type of journalism produces positive changes in the public’s perception of the problem.

Last week, I was glad to see that an impaired driving conviction was generously covered by the media and even made the front page of local newspapers1. In particular, Matt Kieltyka’s piece exhibited traits of what experts consider good road accident journalism: it contained a detailed description of the event, including its human context, antecedents, the aftermath, and it explained how drinking and driving led to the death of a little girl1.

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Re: Can YOU stop impaired driving?

The “benefits of [a sobriety check] campaign may not depend on drivers’ being personally exposed to a checkpoint, but rather on their knowing that others have.” Thus, local media can aid sobriety check campaigns, by announcing how many have been checked and how many didn’t pass. Media coverage, in turn, will increase the perceived risks of being caught in by the police.

This is a blog response to the post “Can YOU stop impaired driving?” in which Sergeant Tim Burrows calls for ideas on how to tackle this problem. Here, I present my two cents:

First, don’t use threats of physical harm or death in your communications, because this kind of message is not effective with the target groups for which it is intended: male drivers and sensation seekers (this term refers to a personality trait that is associated with risk-taking and impaired driving)1, 2. Moreover, some studies suggest that these messages can be counterproductive, because they induce denial (“this won’t happen to me”) and self-enhancement attitudes (“I am a better driver than the people in the ad”).

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Compromising sucks!

In a couple of months, Vancouver B.C. will undergo an important social experiment that will test transit users and drivers’ ability to coexist with bicycle riders. The Burrard Bridge, one of the three constructions that connect the west side of the city with the downtown area (see map), will have one of its lanes converted into a bicycle-only path. Approved by the city council in early May, this decision wasn’t free of controversy [1]: while a number of bicycle advocates were disappointed that only one lane will be converted, some drivers and transit users recalled with worry the traffic jams created by a similar experiment carried out a decade ago.

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