WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT: “RISK HOMEOSTASIS”?

“HOMEOSTASIS is the ability or tendency of an organism or cell to maintain internal equilibrium by adjusting its physical processes.”  [Chlordiazepoxide, trade name LIBRIUM, is a sedative and hypnotic medication of the benzodiazepine class; it is used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and withdrawal symptoms from alcohol and/or drug abuse–discovered accidentally in 1955.  Wikipedia]

 “RISK is the possibility of suffering harm or loss; danger.  A factor, thing, element, or course involving uncertain danger; a hazard.”

RISK HOMEOSTASIS was a hypothesis posited by Gerald J. S. Wilde, a professor of psychology at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, dealing with the notion that every person has an acceptable amount of risk that she or he finds tolerable.  If the perceived level of risk in one part of a person’s life changes, that person will compensate by either reducing or increasing the amount and severity of risks taken–all in order to maintain an EQUILIBRIUM of perceived risk. 

Let’s say, for example, a rocket ship with astronauts aboard is about to lift off into space.  The night before liftoff, temperatures dropped and the seals around the fuel tanks may have hardened a bit from their softened sealing state.  These are the large O-rings connecting and sealing.  Launch engineers can observe ice on the rocket, around the O-rings.  Is it all sealed properly?  Should they abort?  Manufacturing engineers are consulted.  They’re not sure.  The mission is a GO FOR LAUNCH!  (Cannot disappoint the country, the crew, the politicians, the families, the companies.  Hubris: pride.  USA!  USA!) 

Up, up it goes.  A beautiful candlestick into the blue sky on a full-sunny morning in Florida.  POOF!  No more.  Risky business, this space travel stuff. 

It’s Risky Business, this technology of ours.  Was the long-ago, not-often-thought-of Challenger explosion an “accident”?  a “catastrophe”?  a “disaster”?  On the other hand, was it a kind of “Russian roulette,” as some suggested? 

The Challenger explosion–and also the Columbia accident (which certain engineers knew was doomed when they saw a panel hit the wing at liftoff)–teaches us that we live in a world which we have made, a world of technology which has the potential for catastrophe: “It will happen again.”

Do we want the safest of all possible worlds?  Really?  Life is filled with trade offs, for safety and comfort: The “ancient” national speed limit of 55 mph saved lives…. 

“Under certain circumstances, changes that appear to make a system or an organization safer, in fact, don’t,” writes Gerald Wilde in his book Target Risk.  Why is that?  Human beings have a tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another.  “Ah, now I have new brakes and tires.  I feel safer, can drive better, and can go faster–stopping better.” 

Pedestrians are still killed at marked crosswalks.  They feel more safe because of some white paint–but are less vigilant about traffic.  Did they Mind the Gap?  Look both ways?  They assume “safe zones” or assume they are invincible, not even bothering to look out at all. 

Do we have a sense of indestructibility because we drive a large SUV, or large-cab truck?  Is there a false sense of power–or safety?  (I remember my brother who drove a semi- telling me he worried only about trains, tanks, and road ice…) 

What are the benefits of risky behavior, speeding to gain time?  What are the benefits of lighter-constructed vehicles?  More plastics, less weight, better fuel economy, faster speed.  Better air bags, passenger-compartment safety.  Observe the Crash-Test Dummies for results, at the pile of rubble at a 35-mph crash, at 65-mph, at 75-mph.  Risky Business. 

“Chances are…you won’t get caught.  So go for it.”

“It’s risky, but you’ll regret it if you don’t try it.”

“C’mon, take a bite.  It’s only an apple.”

“Might as well.  You only live once.”

“It’s not a scary movie.  Don’t be a wuss.”

“Take a chance.  What’s to lose?” 

© JAMES F. O’NEIL  2018    

 interrobang

 

 

 

 

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