Do Whatever You Want and you guess what, you will probably be Ok. Ok, yes, Great?, unlikely. Much of this post came to me after reading about Risk Homeostasis Theory and thinking about my life. As many of you know, I was the victim of a near fatal car accident where the driver and 2 other passengers in the car I was riding were killed. I suffered a severe brain trauma, lapsed into a coma, was paralyzed and lost all I had ever known. Still today, as a published professor, writer and speaker, it seems I am still able to function at a high level.
Does recovery’s such as mine lead us to believe we can do what we want with impunity? I was fixed pretty much, why should we be careful? Aren’t we encouraged to get all we can now? Situations seem to suggest we can do what we want and still be ok. Yet as I learned, it is true we can do anything we want if we just want to be ok. I however wanted to be better than ok. To be better than ok or just not bad, I had to work to be able to function at a higher level through specific actions. I like must people want to have a life of meaning and do what Steve Jobs referred to as making a dent in the universe.
Isn’t great what we are after? Are any of us striving and working to be average? How many want or think their kids are average? Statistics impossibly document that over 50% of us consider ourselves better than average – at least we want to believe that. If most of us want to be better than average, what should we do? How can we make it happen? What do you want out of your life? Not bad or Really good? To me being better is a simple choice, work to be better, or don’t.
Of course that simple idea is challenged by Gerald Wilde’s Risk Homeostasis Theory (RHT) (linked to article). Dr. Wilde’s focus is traffic safety. He however proposes that RHT can be a theory to predict all human behaviors related to health and safety. He explains that homeostasis is an active, not static process because preserving equilibrium is about ongoing change. He compares risk homeostasis to processes like body temperature, heart rate and sugar level that constantly work to keep levels within a range through process adjustments. Homeostasis, therefore is a process of continual adjustments to short-term fluctuations to maintain long-term steadiness.
In my recent read of Target 2: A New Psychology of Safety & Health; what works, what doesn’t and why I feel like I was educated and enlightened. The data provided and his explanations seem to justify logic but do not flow with traditional understanding of how to make things better. Risk Homeostasis Theory is explained by what he calls the Delta Fallacy. He explains the Delta Fallacy as: if there are 3 delta’s through which water flows to go to the ocean, blocking 2 delta’s does not mean that only 1/3 of the water gets to the ocean. As happens, the water still gets to the ocean even though 2 deltas are blocked, however now instead of through the 3 deltas, more flows through the one open delta or new channels are developed to disburse the water. In other words, simply blocking the flow does not change the output of water into the ocean, it just changes its path to get to the ocean.
Wilde uses this as an analogy for risky behaviors. He explains, if we block one risky behavior, it will come out in other ways. He supports this contention with mountains of data. Some simple examples he provides with research include when anti-lock breaks are on cars, people then adjust their behaviors by driving more recklessly relying on the ABS system and death rates overall remain constant. He explains this as an unconscious adaptation that takes place to maintain, or to keep our risk level constant or homeostatic. He supports this contention with many more data supported examples that show no change in overall deaths despite engineering, education and enforcement safety actions such as seat belts, air bags, road improvements, and driver education and the outcome of traffic death rates.
The reading that really caught my attention was when he ventured over to health behaviors citing examples such as cigarette smoking by documenting that when tar and nicotine were reduced, deaths remained constant because people changed how they smoked. Studies document “Harder” Smoking. Article: Smoke Harder? As many of us can readily recall, we know the people who exercise longer or harder so they can eat more unhealthy foods, nullifying gains produced by exercise.
In other words, what he is saying is that focusing on risks and decreasing risks does not and cannot create better outcomes, it just changes how it happens – the Delta Fallacy. What is most interesting is how he documents that people and society per se have a target level of risk that they are willing to accept or have and one that they work to maintain. With well supported documentation for this contention, he shows that when we take action to decrease risk in one way, we will increase our risk in another way so our risk level remains constant or homeostatic.
Wilde proposes this closed loop Homeostatic Mechanism Model. It is considered closed loop because as environment or behaviors decrease risk, behaviors adapt accordingly to keep risk levels and related outcomes constant. I found it interesting to do a thought experiment using these homeostatic mechanisms, which I will follow up with research, about how this applies to our life and that of our culture.
Overall, in well supported ways he documents that traditional methods we use to make us better are ineffective because all these actions do is switch the risk based behaviors. These actions end up just switching the risks we are currently engaged in based on political direction of the day to other risky actions that are we are not dissuaded from doing.
So how can we be better? In his book he proposes ways we can use to adjust the target risk level people are willing to accept and have. I will address specific ideas related to his recommendations in coming posts related to his ideas that seem to correspond with my work. Examples I will use focus on creating a desirable future expectation or what he calls expectationism for a better tomorrow. The other related idea I will address focuses on ways to overcome difficulties enmeshed with behavior change related to todays desire to maximize personal benefit over social benefit or what I call the greater good. In other words, this idea addresses concerns related to why and how we would choose to engage in actions to generate comprehensive improvements by creating interactions so everyone and everything benefits.
Thank you for reading this, making these posts helps me learn. Please, share your thoughts, questions or assertions – I look forward to a lively discussion.
I was unable to find any presentations by Dr. Wilde.
Here is a brief overview of the theory: Wilde – Risk Homeostasis Theory an Overview and here is a link to the Risk Homeostasis Resource Center. At this site is a copy of Target 3, which appears to be an update of the book I just read Target 2.
This is a link to a radio show about Risk Homeostasis Theory available at the resource center site.