"If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?"  

This mantra of frustrated parents through the ages may be a cliche, but it touches on one of the central paradoxes of risky behavior—the existence of "risk gaps" between the kind of risky behavior we would recommend for others versus the kind we engage in personally. As one example, while 9 out of 10 drivers support laws banning texting while driving, up to 80 percent of the population has done it at least occasionally. The same gap exists for many other risky behaviors—things we know are illegal or dangerous but which we engage in all the same—impaired driving, not wearing a seatbelt, smoking, etc.   

Research into risky decision-making suggests that we are more impartial when asked to evaluate risk for other people than we are when we consider these behaviors ourselves. Not only are we less likely to be swayed by cognitive biases in weighing risks for others, but we are less likely to let our emotions get in the way. For researchers looking at how we make decisions about risks, the process is often regarded as an economic model in which we compare the costs and benefits involved. Still, we are also prone to cognitive biases that can lead us to do things that we might not ordinarily consider. Among the most important of these biases is knowing that others are engaging in that same risky behavior.

Whether it's smoking, drug, or alcohol abuse; juvenile delinquency; or premarital sex, having someone in your peer network doing these things makes others in it more willing to follow suit. Though we may still weigh the costs and benefits of doing something risky, seeing someone we know taking the risk can be a powerful inducement to try it ourselves.  Still, this particular cognitive bias mainly seems to apply when it comes to personal risks—whether or not we are willing to take a chance for ourselves. What about weighing those same risks for others? If someone asks you whether they should try something risky, are you as likely to be swayed knowing that someone in your peer network has done the same? 

A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General examined the "risk gap" between our willingness to take personal risks versus recommending that same risk to others.  According to lead researcher Sarah Helfinstein of the University of Maryland-College Park and her fellow authors, people use different strategies depending on whether they are considering the risk for themselves or recommending it to a loved one. A sample of 400 participants was recruited using Amazon's Mechanical Turk (with a mean age of 34.29 and almost evenly divided between males and females). 

All research participants completed the 30-item DOSPERT scale which presents 30 risky scenarios measuring health and safety risks, financial risks, recreational and ethical risks, and social decisions. Some of the DOSPERT scenarios are:

  • Admitting that your tastes are different from those of a friend
  • Going camping in the wilderness
  • Betting a day’s income at the horse races
  • Drinking heavily at a social function.
  • Investing 5% of your annual income in a very speculative stock

For the purpose of the study, the participants were assigned to one of four different groups:

  • The engagement group consisted of people who were asked if they would engage in those risky situations themselves.
  • The recommendation group was asked if they would recommend those risky activities for a loved one.
  • The good idea/Self group participants were simply asked if it was a good idea for them to participate.
  • The good idea/Others group participants were asked if it was a good idea for a loved one to participate.

Participants in all four groups were also asked to weigh the costs and benefits of each risky activity, as well as how likely they thought a positive or negative outcome would be. And they were asked how many people they knew who had engaged in that same risky activity. 

As expected, the results of the study showed significant "risk gaps" between those activities people would be willing to try for themselves versus those they would recommend for loved ones. Whether they consider the risky activity to be a good idea or not, people still weigh risks differently depending on whether they will taking that risk personally or advising others. The researchers also found strong evidence that knowing other people who have taken the same risk will make people more willing to take that risk themselves. Even when they recognize the risks involved and agree that the behavior is potentially harmful, they are still more likely to engage in it when they know someone else who has done it. 

There can still be significant differences in terms of the type of risk people are willing to take depending on whether they know someone else who has engaged in it:

  • People appear more likely to be influenced into taking risks in social situations or involving health and safety (drinking heavily in a social setting or driving a car without a seat belt).
  • When it comes to recreational risks (taking a skydiving class, bungee jumping), or financial risks (investing money in a very speculative stock), knowing someone who has taken that same risk may be less likely to lead to a copycat effect.

What does this study mean for parents or family members hoping to discourage (or encourage) risky behavior in their loved ones? The kind of peer networks that people have seems to play an important role in persuading people to engage in activities they well know are potentially harmful. At the same time, the decisions we make can have a powerful influence on the people around us, perhaps far more than we are willing to admit. 

However we choose to advise people, it is our actions that seem to have the strongest effect. This also may help explain the popularity of potentially dangerous health fads and such phenomena as copycat suicides.

Since others look to what we do rather than what we say, in deciding whether to try something risky for themselves, we need to be more aware of the kind of consequences our actions can bring.

It's the prudent thing to do.

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