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The Risk-Compensation Effect

Jonah Lehrer with an interesting article in WSJ on our belief that risks can be overcome with technology:

Though antilock brakes should make cars safer to drive, studies have demonstrated that drivers with such systems drive faster and brake later.

The same goes for cyclists and skiers who wear helmets; they tend to move more aggressively. Even sky divers compensate for reductions in risk: Though their equipment has become much more reliable, fatalities have not been reduced, because divers now open their parachutes closer to the ground. When people feel safer, they take more chances, so the total level of safety remains constant.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should be complacent about risk—antilock brakes and chin straps are wonderful inventions. But it does suggest the limits of technology as a cure-all. Sometimes, the safest way to live is to be a little afraid.