Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

Would you rather be injured by lightning or a downed power line?

Research has shown we typically prefer foods, medicine, and other goods described as natural over their artificial counterparts. Little research, however, has examined whether natural preferences extend towards aversive events or hazards.

If, as some contend, risk assessment is predominately based on feelings elicited by potential costs and benefits, independent of probabilities, a preference for natural risks could help explain why people minimize risks associated with natural events (e.g., sun tanning).

The authors had some interesting results. One example, is that subjects tended to prefer death by heat-wave to death from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace, even though the latter is a much more peaceful way of passing. The authors continue, ” Similarly, help is more likely to arrive quickly after a car accident than a hiking accident, but more people reported a preference for breaking their leg in the latter version.”

In the discussion section the authors point to some of the reasons we might show these preferences. “Although these results might reflect a general consideration of natural events being less risky or dangerous, they may also reflect subjects’ expectancies with regard to the typical severity of an event. For instance, there are ample reports of fatal car accidents, but reports of hiking fatalities of hiking fatalities are quite rare. Similarly, many people have personally lived through heat waves, thus diminishing their perceived dangerousness, but reports of carbon monoxide poisoning suggest that it is often fatal.”

The authors conclude” In sum, the current results extend the findings on natural preferences, and add to our understanding of why people diminish risks associated with natural phenomena.

Past research has shown that many people prefer natural foods and medicines over artificial counterparts. The present study focused on examination of aversive events and hazards. Preferences were compared by having subjects consider pairs of scenarios, one natural and one artificial, matched in negative outcome and severity. Pairings were also rated along several dimensions of risk perception such as dangerousness, scariness, likelihood, and fairness. As hypothesized, natural hazards were consistently preferred to functionally identical artificial ones. Additionally, natural hazards tended to be considered less scary and dangerous, but not necessarily more unfair or unlikely than equivalent artificial counterparts. Results are discussed in terms of risk perception, and how that can lead to people diminishing risks associated with natural hazards.

Source: Would you rather be injured by lightning or a downed power line?

Subscribe to Farnam Street and fuel your mind via twitteremail, or RSS.