Monday, July 2, 2012

Risk homeostasis

Risk homeostatis is the theory that everyone has his or her own personal risk threshold which is more or less fixed.  So, the theory says, when we reduce risk in one area we tend to increase risk in another in order to maintain the overall level of risk we want/need in our lives.
There is a lot of debate about the hypothesis, partly because the degree of risk associated with an individual activity is itself so difficult to measure, but also because there’s no easy way to baseline an individual’s risk threshold with any certainty or clarity. But I believe the theory has merit.
To use my own behaviour as an example, we’ve been having some significant temperature swings here recently that have resulted in me wearing different riding gear. On a couple of really hot (90+ degrees) days I was riding in a tee shirt and vest as my riding jacket was just too hot. Then I got a mesh jacket. With the exact same riding conditions and all else being equal I found myself riding harder when wearing the armoured mesh jacket than when all I was wearing was a tee shirt. So I traded a reduction in risk in one area (bad road rash if I fell) for an increase in risk in another (riding harder and faster increased the chance of a spill). Then it got cooler for a few days and I went to a fully armoured jacket and a full-face helmet. Guess what happened? I found myself accelerating harder, pushing into those curves a few kph faster, and braking a few metres shorter than I was doing wearing the mesh jacked and 3/4 helmet.
Now I’m not doing this consciously. In fact it was while in the middle of one of those fast sweepers that it occurred to me that I was riding it as quickly as I probably ever had, and the only explanation was that I was ATGATT and therefore subconsciously felt better protected and less concerned about my physical wellbeing if I did go down. That’s when I recalled hearing this theory and started giving it some thought.
Gerald Wilde, the theory’s developer, also claims it applies to larger populations as a whole. For example, not that long ago living was itself a risky proposition with industrial and farm accidents, disease, limited or poor medical care, and so on. People were used to a high level of risk in their daily lives and so didn’t need any external stimuli. Today we mostly sit in offices, so it’s no surprise that bungee jumping, sky diving, hang gliding and other adventure sports, even sports motorcycling (as opposed to simply commuting) have become so popular. http://bibiscus.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/risk.jpgWilde’s theory says that we need those pastimes to offset our relatively risk-free modern day-to-day lives (at least in advanced Western countries) which, if true, means that every nanny-state safety regulation is so much wasted effort because we’ll just find some other way to put ourselves in danger. It simply becomes a moving target.
So what do you say? Does your riding behaviour change based on what you’re wearing? Did you give up hang-gliding and then take up motorcycling just to keep the adrenalin flowing? I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

16 comments:

  1. Canajun,
    What an absolutely excellent post!

    I ride with all the gear all the time these days, apart from riding 1km down the road to gas up if I'm having an early start next day. I'll be in jeans then with an armoured jacket but certainly feel vulnerable and take a lot of care.

    With regard to the second part of your proposition, it's something I wholeheartedly agree with. My take is that what pushes mankind upward and onward is the willingness to push the boundaries and take risks in all fields of endeavour. I think it might genuinely be part of our genetic mapping to survive and grow. People who have a strong predisposition in this regard may well be attracted to higher-risk activities or be achievers in other fields. Also in the modern world, many, if not most people have a comfortable existence where decent challenges are few and far between. Motorcycling is one counter to this existence.

    I'm not sure that I've explained that succinctly but in short, I agree.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Geoff. And you're right. If we become too risk averse progress simply stalls. One only has to look at the civil service (in Canada at least - I'm not sure about elsewhere, although I expect it's similar) where risk avoidance is the norm and as a result the entire organization has become completely rule-bound and dysfunctional. No progress being made there for sure, except in terms of years to retirement. In short society needs risk-takers.

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  2. Well you got me thinking. I'm afraid I'll have to comment on this on my own blog.

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  3. Today I wore a protective orange t-shirt and Ray-Bans. But it's just so friggin' hot around here lately!- the temp tickles 100F every day now, it seems.

    If I'm just puttin' around town on local streets with a 40mph speed limit, I will sometimes leave the helmet at home. I realize there's no good reason for this.

    But if I'm riding up in the mountains or on the expressway, I wear my leather jacket and helmet. When I go on my 2-week ride next month, I'll take both.

    I would say that the ride determines what I wear, rather than what I wear determines how I ride.

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    1. That's true - I'll dress differently depending on how far and how long as well. But having said that, do you find your riding style varies depending on how well protected (or not) you are? Do you ride any more aggressively when wearing a helmet than not?

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    2. No, I ride the same 'style' regardless of what gear I'm wearing. I always remind myself not to exceed my capabilities, or the machine's. I like to crank it wide open as much as the next guy, but there's a time and a place, eh?

      Discretion is the better part of valor

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    3. Or as the expression goes, there are old bikers and bold bikers, but no old, bold bikers.

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  4. Great blog and thanks to 'living amongst tourists" I found you. Ill surly be keeping up with your adventures and living amongst tourists and your blog have inspired me to make my own blog. Im a newbie Vespa owner in Paris and hope to document my adventures.
    If you dont mind I will link to link to you.

    Cheers!

    Jason

    http://parisrider.posterous.com/

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    1. Jason - Thanks for writing in. I'll be following your blog as well. Good luck with it.

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  5. Nice blog, and thanks for the thought provoking post. for me this manifests itself in a slightly different way. When I am riding my 1958 BMW /2, I feel adequately protected in a half helmet and jacket. When I am riding my newer GS, I would feel naked without a full-face, armor, and boots. I am not quite sure whether speed of travel is the chicken or the egg.......

    Classic Velocity

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    1. CV - I expect it's a bit of both. Certainly if your intention is to go out and ride hard (or road race, or whatever) then you'll gear up for it, or at least you should. But if you were taking the GS down the block to your local coffee shop and just threw on a half helmet, would you still feel naked?
      Thanks for the comment.

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  6. Hmmm, I gear up when riding my 101cc Symba and I'm a public servant, but not in Canada. I'm wondering if I'm still allowed in the gene pool.

    Seriously, great post.

    I look at my friends and some are afraid to try things they would like to. Other friends don't seem to have a clue as to the possible consequences of their actions. Most of my friends seem to be more in the middle. I've noticed as I've aged I manage risks differently than when I was younger. I'm more cautious now, than I once was. I've suspected this had to do with an increased awareness of consequences gained from life experience.

    Thanks for the share.
    ~Keith,
    Circle Blue

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    1. Keith - Thanks for reading and commenting. There's no doubt we assess risk differently as we age and come to the realization that our bones break easier and take longer to heal. Along with that I expect our tolerance level decreases overall, but we still need some risk in our lives. How else do you explain the number of older folks whose bucket lists include activities such as sky-diving, white-water rafting, and so on? And why is the fastest growing demographic in the motorcycle world folks in their 50's and 60's? You'd think as we got older and more risk averse the last thing we'd do is take up an inherently risky pastime.

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    2. Oh, and you're still allowed in the gene pool. :)

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  7. This is something that I have just been considering! How appropriate! In this heat I admit for the first time I've been scootering (OK,OK, only 40mph, but hitting the pavement at 40 can be disastrous, too)in full face helmet and t-shirt. These are rural roads and gravel makes its way around every corner, but I have to say while I feel more free and even carefree in the t-shirt, I am extremely aware that I could be careless.

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