June 13, 2020

Risk compensation

If people are estimating things correctly, the new measure should exactly compensate, so we should be indifferent between the original behavior and the new (riskier) behavior + safety measures. The problem seems to arise if we miscalculate and engage in riskier behaviors that outweigh the safety benefit from the new measure. Under what circumstances are people likely to overestimate or underestimate the safety impact of new measure?

For example, early in covid-19 we were told wearing masks might give a false sense of security, and that we would stop washing our hands or social distancing which are more effective means of preventing the virus, and so we should wear masks. But that’s only a problem if we overestimate the additional safety we gain from masks if masks do add a layer of additional safety, we should be able to reduce our other safeguarding activities by a certain amount such that our risk tolerance remains constant.

I’m not suggesting this would be a good idea it’s likely that we should be maximizing our safety rather than holding our risk tolerance constant. But using the risk compensation argument you could say people should stop washing their hands because clean hands might give them a false sense of security so that they touch their face more or give handshakes more. Clearly in some circumstances there is a concern that people will over or underestimate the benefit that the new measure gives them.

Updated Jun, 14 2020