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Risk Calculus and Social Norms

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I’m old enough to remember when seat belts in automobiles went from simple lap belts to three-point shoulder harnesses. (The car of my Dad’s that I loved the most, a 1966 Austin Healey, had seat belts that were largely notional.) But even more significant than the evolving technology were the evolving perceptions of risk and the social norms that governed behavior. Today seat belt usage in the United States exceeds 90 percent [1], but when I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s seat belts were routinely ignored. Although my parents were adamantly pro-seat belt–resulting in countless arguments that I always lost–by the time I was in high school seat belt usage was still well under 20 percent [2].

One reason for this was the perception that seat belt usage conveyed a certain attitude toward risk and a sense of judgment. Seat belts were viewed by many as unnecessary, to be worn only by the fanatically cautious. Drivers who asked their passengers to wear seat belts were considered anxious or controlling. Passengers who proactively put on a seat belt were implicitly expressing a lack of faith in the ability of the driver to keep them safe. I recall getting into cars and having to make a decision about whether or not to wear a seat belt based not only my perception of the driver’s capabilities, but also on my relationship with the driver and the likelihood that they might take offense.

Today all this seems absurd, at least in the U.S. Seat belt usage has become so normative that for most people, most of the time, it’s an automatic reflex. But it’s worth noting that things weren’t always this way, and it took decades of technological and social progress to arrive at the current arrangement [3]. And the reason I find this ancient history so interesting is that I see some important parallels with our response to the pandemic as we prepare to enter Year Three:

We lack a shared risk calculus.

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