Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Peltzman Effect

Yesterday I listened to a podcast that talked a little bit about the Peltzman Effect. In simplest terms the Peltzman Effect is a theory that claims that the safer people believe they are the more likely they are to engage in risky behavior. I need to do more reading on this but the topic seemed to confirm my own observations. From what little I’ve read this is primarily an economic theory. If you believe that your investments are insured to a certain amount you’ll take more risks than if they were not. I’ve also seen many manifestations of this in other areas. Do high-wire walkers take more chances if they have a net? Increase the safety of cars by adding anti-lock brakes and massive crumple zones and some people take this as permission to bump draft on the highway like it’s a Nascar race. In my own experience I can think of several examples from the years when I used to do much more rock climbing. I did much more dangerous things on top-rope that I ever would have done on lead. And I took much more risks on lead that I ever would consider without a rope.
It seems that the appearance of removing the risk, even if it’s only marginally safer makes people behave disproportionately to the added benefit of the safety net. The net effect seems to be that people feel even more detached from the consequences of their decisions. The safety nets, the ropes, and the ABS brakes may actually encourage more risk taking and be less safe.
I’ve given this issue a lot of thought lately for many reasons. I’ve been considering getting my VW bus on the road again and it has no ABS brakes and the crumple zone is pretty much the driver’s and passenger’s legs. I’ve been trying to get in shape to do more rock climbing than I have in years past. But the biggest reason I’ve chosen to blog about this today comes from just being a father.
It’s natural to want to pad the sharp edges that you bumped into as a kid so your kids won’t have to learn the hard way. I also try hard to provide a decent financial safety net for my children. But I fear that in a small way I may be experiencing a little bit of the Peltzman Effect. By making things a little nicer for my kids than I had it I seem to be encouraging them to take risks that I would not have taken. I made a lot of stupid mistakes as a child. I wasn’t shielded from the consequences and in most cases felt the full brunt of those mistakes. As a parent it’s much easier said than done.
There’s a British sci-fi comedy that I really love, Red Dwarf. I think sci-fi allows you to explore ideas and themes that you really couldn’t explore in other formats. In one episode one of the main characters met his alter ego from a parallel dimension. In one dimension this character, Rimmer, was a sniveling middle management suck up with no loyalty and was inept and virtually friendless. In another dimension the same person had become, Ace, the dashing space pilot that everybody wanted to be around and was the hero of everything that he attempted. The two tried to figure out at what point in their life their paths took such drastically different paths, one becoming Rimmer and the other becoming Ace. They concluded that many years ago one of them cheated on a test and got caught, the other did not. The ironic thing is that Ace was the one that got caught and Rimmer had gotten away with it. Having that wake up call early in his life had caused Ace to sit up and re-evaluate what his life would become while Rimmer never had such a wake up call.
My fear is that I’m doing too much to interfere with the natural consequences and not letting my kids get the wake up call they need. As a parent who wants only the best for them that’s much easier said than done.

1 comment:

  1. That is one of my favorite episodes. I wonder how much of my latch key kid upbringing made me more responsible and more willing to do things for the kids that has the net effect of being more detrimental and keeping them from being independant.