Risk

Risk

Risk

Risk

Synopsis

Risk compensation postulates that everyone has a "risk thermostat" and that safety measures that do not affect the setting of the thermostat will be circumvented by behaviour that re-establishes the level of risk with which people were originally comfortable. It explains why, for example, motorists drive faster after a bend in the road is straightened. Cultural theory explains risk-taking behaviour by the operation of cultural filters. It postulates that behaviour is governed by the probable costs and benefits of alternative courses of action which are perceived through filters formed from all the previous incidents and associations in the risk-taker's life.; "Risk" should be of interest to many readers throughout the social sciences and in the world of industry, business, engineering, finance and public administration, since it deals with a fundamental part of human behaviour that has enormous financial and economic implications.

Excerpt

This book began as a collaborative venture with Michael Thompson. For over 15 years my research into risk, mainly on the road, was focused on the theory of “risk compensation”. This theory accords primacy in the explanation of accidents to the human propensity to take risks. The theory postulates that we all come equipped with “risk thermostats” and suggests that safety interventions that do not affect the setting of the thermostat are likely to be frustrated by behavioural responses that reassert the level of risk with which people were originally content. My research had noted that there were large variations in the settings of individual thermostats, but had little to say about why this should be so.

About ten years ago I read Michael’s article “Aesthetics of risk” (Thompson 1980), and about five years later met the man himself. His research into risk over the past 20 years has been central to the development of a perspective that has come to be known as “cultural theory” (Thompson et al. 1990). Risk, according to this perspective, is culturally constructed; where scientific fact falls short of certainty we are guided by assumption, inference and belief. In such circumstances the deterministic rationality of classical physics is replaced by a set of conditional, probabilistic rationalities. Risk throws up questions to which there can be no verifiable single right answers derivable by means of a unique rationality. Cultural theory illuminates a world of plural rationalities; it discerns order and pattern in risk-taking behaviour, and the beliefs that underpin it. Wherever debates about risk are prolonged and unresolved—as, for example, that between environmentalists and the nuclear industry—cultural theory seeks an explanation not in further scientific analysis but in the differences in premises from which the participants are arguing. Michael thought that risk compensation was obvious common sense, and I thought that cultural theory would cast helpful light on how the thermostat was set.

This book grew out of a joint research project called “Risk and rationality” that we undertook for the Economic and Social Research Council. It draws upon much of our earlier work, and makes connections that had earlier eluded us. When we first discussed the idea of a book with Roger Jones of UCL Press we rashly promised to produce “the complete theory of risk”. . .

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