11/5/2012: Ignoring that which almost happened?

In recent years, I am finding myself migrating more firmly toward behavioralist views on finance and economics. Not that this view, in my mind, is contradictory to the classes of models and logic I am accustomed to. It is rather an additional enrichment of them, adding toward completeness.

With this in mind – here’s a fascinating new study.

How Near-Miss events Amplify or Attenuate Risky Decision Making, written by Catherine Tinsley, Robin Dillon and Matthew Cronin and published in April 2012 issue of Management Science studied the way people change their risk attitudes “in the aftermath of many natural and man-made disasters”.

More specifically, “people often
wonder why those affected were underprepared, especially when the
disaster was the result of known or regularly occurring hazards (e.g.,
hurricanes). We study one contributing factor: prior near-miss
experiences. Near misses are events that have some nontrivial
expectation of ending in disaster but, by chance, do not.”

The study shows that “when near misses are interpreted as disasters that did not occur,
people illegitimately underestimate the danger of subsequent hazardous
situations and make riskier decisions (e.g., choosing not to engage in
mitigation activities for the potential hazard). On the other hand, if
near misses can be recognized and interpreted as disasters that almost happened,
this will counter the basic “near-miss” effect and encourage more
mitigation. We illustrate the robustness of this pattern across
populations with varying levels of real expertise with hazards and
different hazard contexts (household evacuation for a hurricane,
Caribbean cruises during hurricane season, and deep-water oil
drilling). We conclude with ideas to help people manage and communicate
about risk.”

An interesting potential corollary to the study is that analytical conclusions formed ex post near misses (or in the wake of significant increases in the risk) matter to the future responses. Not only that, the above suggests that the conjecture that ‘glass half-full’ type of analysis should be preferred to ‘glass half-empty’ position might lead to a conclusion that an event ‘did not occur’ rather than that it ‘almost happened’.

Fooling yourself into safety by promoting ‘optimism’ in interpreting reality might be a costly venture…