In an interesting and well supported proposal, Gerald Wilde suggests creating higher levels of future hope is a more powerful way to alter behaviors toward health and safety than engineering, education and enforcement efforts. Dr. Wilde’s major outcome has been Risk Homeostasis Theory which is a general human theory of behavioral compensations in response to changes introduced in intrinsic risk. In other words, his data demonstrate that people maintain their perceived risk, what he calls their Target Risk Level (TRL), by using behavioral compensations. To support this theory he uses powerful data supported examples that demonstrate the compensations people make when people are in safer cars. For example when cars have anti-lock breaks, air bags or because drivers have additional drive training, their general response is to drive more recklessly, possibly because of overconfidence, and these behavioral compensation maintain them at their static target risk level.
This theory therefore suggests that little can be done to improve heath and safety because when one area is made safer, for example through engineering with more lights on the road or through education with more training, people drive faster. Researched examples with enforcement such as more police doing DUI checks leads to people making behavioral compensations such as taking different routes or causing other difficulties. In other areas outside of automobile safety, there are similar behavior compensation responses. For example, when cigarettes lowered tar or nicotine, people smoked more or “harder” thus maintaining the same risk through behavior compensations. The example all of us know are the people who exercise more or harder so they can have their desert or eat more thus nullifying or compensating for any real “gains” in well-being. In other words, Risk Homeostasis Theory is a theory that provides a good prediction of future behavior compensations and expected outcomes. Remember a theory at its roots is just a prediction.
You can see Dr. Wilde’s writings and articles at Risk Compensation Resource Center where you can get a copy of his newest book, Target 3: Risk Homeostasis in Everyday Life. In his book he explains that Engineering changes such as safer products or roads, Education or improved knowledge of how to drive or behave and Enforcement of laws and regulations that limit risk behaviors will ineffectively limit or diminish problems because people make behavior compensations such as those previously described.
According to Risk Homeostasis Theory outcome changes are only possible if the perceived Target Risk Level (TRL) is altered. An Increase in Target Risk Level (TRL) can happen if:
- Their is a perceived increase in the expected benefits from risky behavior or
- Expected costs of cautious or safe behavior is increased
In other words, if it is perceived to be easier and less costly to engage in more risk, it is more likely to happen. Makes sense!
A Decrease in Target Risk Level (TRL) can happen if:
- Expected benefits from safe or cautious behavior is perceived to have increased
- Expected costs of risky behavior is perceived to have increased
In other words, if it is perceived that engaging in safer behavior is more beneficial and the risky behavior is more costly, they will not behave as risky. Again, this is common sense.
Although all this seems like common sense, the data he provides and information presented documents that traditional approaches to make the world better or safer through engineering, education, and enforcement, E³, are ineffective because of behavioral compensations.
What helps? Dr. Wilde documents that a belief and desire for a better tomorrow. In other words having something desirable to look forward to. This is something I continually have written about and I emphasize that a better tomorrow won’t just happen, we must help make it happen. As the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains, an open system left to itself will move toward chaos so if we want it to be a predicable and better tomorrow, we must make it happen.
To create a desire to engage in helpful behaviors, he calls for “Expectationism” and the desire to live for something good and better in the future. This also relates to my first step to practice Paneugenesis which is “Operationalize an Idealized Outcome”. Having an exciting and desirable outcome to move toward or look forward to would in itself create expectationism which he demonstrates leads to behavior compensations that make it more likely they will get to experience a desirable future. Data demonstrates people who have an optimistic or desirable view of the future take care of themselves and the world better today because they are looking forward to tomorrow. This also means these people practice environmentalism or are green because they are good stewards.
In other words, Risk Homeostasis Theory provides another solid reason to want to generate comprehensive improvements by creating interactions so everyone and everything benefits thus helping us all have a better tomorrow. I look forward to working with you to make tomorrow even better than today.