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Friday, June 20, 2008

Psychology: If people were robots, safety devices would abolish most accidents, but ...

In "Taking more risks because you feel safe", Shankar Vedantam (Washington Post, June 9, 2008) warns against the assumption that social problems can be solved as if people were robots:
Trying to fix problems that affect vast numbers of people has an intuitive appeal that politicians and policymakers find irresistible, but several warehouses of research studies show that intuition is often a poor guide to fixing systemic problems. While it seems like common sense to pump money into an economy that is pulling the bedcovers over its head, the problem with most social interventions is that they target not robots and machines but human beings -- who regularly respond to interventions in contrarian, paradoxical and unpredictable ways.
Yes, that's precisely the challenge. When policy makers prescribe solutions to human problems, they are usually dealing with people who are as smart and as motivated as themselves, and sometimes idiosyncratic as well.

It is very different from managing a chicken barn, where the chickens do pretty predictable things.

The outcome, of course, is that programs never quite work the way they are supposed to - they undergo constant editing and revision at the user end.

Vedantam tells us that policy analyst Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institute found the same thing as I did, when I wrote automotive stories for the Toronto Star years ago. Anti-lock brakes did not reduce collisions as much as hoped because some people who had them took more chances on icy roads.

Overall, despite this glitch, safety devices and modern emergency medicine have greatly reduced the proportionate death toll from, say, the 1960s - most often by protecting us despite our foolish or dangerous decisions.

His article describes a really interesting British study of motorist reactions to a "male" and "female" cyclist (actually the same researcher, sometimes in drag).

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