Is risk homeostasis real?
Is risk homeostasis real? There are studies that both confirm and deny its existence. Many of these studies are biased, but research that tries to eliminate the bias seems to indicate that risk homeostasis is real.
Risk homeostasis is the theory that people like a certain level of risk in their lives, and that if you eliminate one form of risk, people will tend to compensate by taking additional risks. If this really happens, it has significant public policy implications. Wearing seatbelts, for example, might make people feel safer so that they compensate by taking other risks. If the dangers from these additional risks exceeds the danger from not wearing a seatbelt, then we may actually be better off by not requiring people to wear seatbelts than by requiring people to wear them.
In the case of seatbelts, it can be difficult to get an unbiased answer as to what’s best. Some researchers, particularly those with Libertarian leanings, seem to want to prove that making people wear seatbelts doesn’t make sense. You can see an example of this here. Other researchers, like those working for insurance companies or government health and safety organizations, seem to want to prove that making people wear seatbelts is a good idea. You can see an example of this here.
Supporters of either side in this debate may selectively cite statistics that support their position while ignoring those that don’t. Because of this, there are studies that have shown that requiring drivers to wear seatbelts is both a good idea and not a good idea, which makes it difficult for policy-makers to make an intelligent and informed decision about what’s best to do.
There are also areas of information security in which we might expect to see the effects of risk homeostasis if the effect is actually real. We might expect people running anti-virus software, or example, to be less careful when opening emails or attachments to emails if they believe that their anti-virus software is protecting them.
Jeremy Jackson, while a student at Simon Frasier University, decided to test whether or not risk homeostasis is real. To do this he carefully created an experiment that tried to eliminate all of the sources of potential bias that earlier experiments might have had. His experiment tried to test the accuracy of the original study that claimed that drivers compensate for the additional safety that wearing seatbelts provides by driving more recklessly. You can get his full findings here.
The bottom line is that the effects of risk homeostasis seem real, so that we can expect to see people compensate for decreased risks in one area by taking additional risks in another area. It’s still not clear, however, whether or not this compensating for decreased risks in one area leads to an overall gain or loss.
It might be the case, for example, that if you eliminate a risk that’s causing $10 million in loss that you get people taking compensating risks that only cause $5 million in loss. If that’s the case, then trying to eliminate the first risk makes sense. If the compansating risks cause $15 million in loss, however, then you’re better off not trying to eliminate the first risk. Because it’s impossible to tell which of these will happen for any particular risk, the best way to manage any given risk needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.