Buckling up is the easiest way to stay safe in a car. So why is it so easy to “forget” to do it in a cab? (Photo: Alamy)
Some risks are so obvious, just thinking about them sounds alarm bells: Driving in a blizzard or smoking cigarettes are just a couple that immediately come to mind.
But while there are the obvious risky situations, there are others that even the most diligent among us walk right into.
Say you’re about to head out on a work trip, so you call a cab to the airport. You get in the car and don’t bother buckling up. Maybe you take a little snooze before getting dropped off at your terminal. “By the time you arrive in the cab at the airport, the most injurious part of your journey is over,” Andreas Wilke, PhD, an associate professor at Clarkson University, tells Yahoo Health. After all, driving is far more dangerous than flying — especially if you didn’t bother to put on the seat belt. The thing is: We just don’t see it that way.
We’ve all been there: We skip the seat belt in a cab, text when we’re stopped at the red light, lay out by the pool without sunscreen, and get behind the wheel even though we’re totally sleep-deprived. To figure out why we do these, well, stupid things, we first must understand how we come to make decisions in the first place.
There are two different modes for thinking our way through decisions: Through experience (running away when something is scary, or lashing out when you’re angry), and through deliberation (knowing that UV rays cause skin cancer, so making the logical decision to avoid the rays).
“The deliberative mode is based more on numbers,” Ellen Peters, PhD, a psychology professor and director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative at The Ohio State University, tells Yahoo Health. The problem: Numbers don’t always carry much meaning, particularly to people who aren’t naturally mathematically inclined. And that’s when the first mode — decision-making based on experiences — takes over.
Here’s an example: Wearing a seat belt is the No. 1 way to protect yourself in a motor vehicle accident; doing so saved an estimated 75,000 lives between 2004 and 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “And while we might have some idea about this, we also might think, ‘Well, I didn’t wear one last time and it was OK,’” she says. “In this case, our experience is working against us.”
The same goes for texting and driving — we all know it’s super dangerous to type away behind the wheel, but we also may have shot off a few texts earlier at that red light and lived to tell the tale.
What throws our perceptions of risk out of whack?
We Misunderstand the Real Risk
We tend to perceive risk based on how someone has described it to us — and not because we have actually experienced it, explains Ann Bostrom, PhD, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance who studies risk perception and communication.
Take someone who’s afraid of flying, after watching all the recent news coverage of planes that have crashed or disappeared. The reality is, plane crashes are rare: There were 73 commercial airline accidents, 12 of which were fatal, in 2014 — or about one accident for every 4.4 million flights, according to the International Air Travel Association. To compare: In 2013 alone, there were 30,057 fatal motor vehicle crashes.
But plane crashes tend to be described in horrific ways, and “that evokes a feeling that sticks with us and could make us very precautious,” Bostrom tells Yahoo Health.
Of course, familiarity is also a factor in how we make decisions, adds Wilke. Frequent flyers might not be as nervous about being in the air — and might even be more likely to fly than drive. The opposite can also be true: Someone who never flies may be more nervous and thus stick to the roads. Also, if you’ve lost someone close to you in a plane crash or a car crash, you may be more likely to avoid that mode of transportation.
We Think We’re in Control (Even When We’re Not)
Experience and information about risks aren’t the only factors at play in decision-making, though. Feeling in control or out of control can also alter the way you take risks, says Bostrom.
Back to the seat belt example: You may think that because taxi drivers are professionals at what they do, you’re safer when riding in a cab than when you’re driving yourself or are a passenger to a friend or family member. You’re in a controlled environment. Therefore, you may be more likely to skip the seat belt when riding in a cab.
The same goes for why some people feel safer in cars than in planes: If you feel like you’re more in control driving the car yourself — and out of control in a plane where you can’t do anything but sit there and worry — you may incorrectly view driving as safer.
We Have an “I Don’t Need to Worry” Mindset
The idea of control also feeds into something called the optimism bias — or the unrealistic idea that you’re less at risk of something negative happening to you compared with someone else, says Bostrom.
See, we tend to assume that we are safer, healthier, and kinder than those around us. And while a positive outlook — and an expectation for positive things to happen — can be good, it can also lead to errors in judgment.
Preliminary research on optimism bias from the 1980s suggests that an unrealistic mindset that everything will come up roses can reduce the likelihood that you’ll opt for preventive measures. (If you think you’re a good driver, you may not wear a seat belt; if you think you’re super-healthy, you may skip suggested cancer screenings, etc.)
So Who Takes Risks Anyway?
Contrary to what you might think, there’s no one group of people more likely than others to take certain risks.“You can have a skydiving wallflower and a chain-smoking insurance buyer,” says Wilke.
That said, research does point to some groups who tend to make chancy decisions more than others. One such group: adolescents. That’s in part because the temporal lobe of teens (which controls emotional and even risky reactions) fires much more than a brain region called the prefrontal cortex (more active in adults), which is responsible for considering consequences and thinking things out.
“Some research also suggests that people who have less power in society — women and racial minorities — are more likely to see things as risky,” says Bostrom. “They may be more likely to be cautious than people in power.” This could be because they perceive themselves to be less powerful — and thus less likely to control the consequences of an action than someone with more power.
A third factor at play: People who are better with numbers and good at math — something called numerical literacy — will draw more meaning from numbers (like how likely it is to get heart disease if your diet is all processed food) and may be much more likely to take risk into account, says Peters. “We find numerical literacy is associated with taking protective behaviors against HIV, medicine adherence, and saving for retirement,” she says. “Asthmatics who are [numerically literate] are less likely to need emergency care, too — likely because they are adamant about taking their meds.”
And sometimes risk-taking comes down to nothing more than having something else on your mind or not living in that present moment — which we’re all guilty of from time to time.
With texting while driving, for example, there’s a social element at play. And since humans are social creatures, we may be pulled to answer a message instead of waiting it out, Bostrom says. When we’re in a rush and thinking about other things, it may not cross our minds to take certain safety measures like putting a seat belt on, she adds.
How to Stop Doing the Things You Know You Shouldn’t Do
“If people know what they can do about a risky situation and have a strong sense of action, they are more likely to do something about it,” says Bostrom. Take simply driving a car — you may have an idea it’s dangerous, but do you know what to do if your car slips and slides? Consider big health threats like cancer and chronic disease — do you know your family history or when you should be getting screened for what? Simply finding those answers can steer you toward safer decisions, stat.
The next step is taking action — and putting in a little bit of added effort. “If it’s not easy to take safety measures, we’re less likely to take them,” says Bostrom. Sounds simple, but it’s true. Make it a no-brainer to be smart and safe — store your bike helmet right by the door so you can’t forget it when you head out for a ride, for instance.
After all, even if you know exactly what to do to protect yourself or stay safe, actually doing it is what matters.