Risk homeostasis says what?


I left the following comment over at Damien Cox’s blog at the Toronto Star, but seeing as the comments are moderated and the blogging software seemingly untrustworthy over there, as I’ve meant to devote a post specifically to this for some time (I discussed it in a footnote to this post), and as I think it’s an interesting topic, I decided to just cross-post it here. If you’re not interested in reading about whether hockey players ought to be wearing visors, you can just stop here. I’m sure I’ll be back tomorrow with a poop joke.

I know it seems obvious that visor use could only lead to better protection. But while it’s weird to think Don Cherry might be right about something, he actually might be. He’s just not eloquent enough to explain his thoughts coherently (and to be fair, he doesn’t really have the time during Coach’s Corner that I do while posting on the internet).

Consider the theory of risk homeostasis. (It was developed by a psychology professor at Queen’s University, though I first read about it in a Malcolm Gladwell article.) The idea is that individuals have a certain level of acceptable risk that doesn’t change. If you raise the threshold of protection against dire consequences, people simply behave in a riskier manner, and the result is that accidents happen about as often as they did before.

The study I’ve seen involved a fleet of taxicabs in Munich. Half were given antilock braking systems, while the others just had old conventional brakes. The drivers with ABS took more chances and expected their cars would be able to handle it. The ones without ABS simply drove more carefully. The result was that the accident rate was the same for both types of cab.

Now consider risk homeostasis as applied to visor use in hockey. It makes some sense that visor-wearers are engaging in riskier behaviour since the overall risk of personal injury has lessened (both to themselves and to other visor wearers). Anecdotal evidence among players indicates that the sticks have started coming up off the ice more often now that players are wearing visors. There may be something to the argument that there’s less respect for other players, simply because players wearing visors don’t perceive high-sticking as being as risky as players who don’t wear visors do.

Of course it’s the players without visors who are taking the brunt of this increased risk; they may be more careful, but their visor-wearing opponents aren’t (a situation analogous to a Munich taxicab without ABS getting broadsided by a careless cabbie with ABS). If so, perhaps visors should be mandatory for all or prohibited altogether.

But if risk homeostasis is a valid theory, it would seem to make sense that the rate of injury would be about the same in an NHL in which no players wore visors than in an NHL in which all players wore them (although the types of injury would likely vary).

All things being equal, if visors don’t provide an enhanced level of protection but do restrict the players’ visibility and marketability, the question is: why bother?

7 Responses to “Risk homeostasis says what?”

  1. 1 Candace

    Because your chances of getting laid significantly decrease when you look like this:

  2. 2 Peter Lynn

    That’s an argument for mouth guards, not visors. Anyway, if Bobby Clarke isn’t getting laid, it’s not because he’s toothless. It’s because he’s a big jerk.

  3. 3 Scott

    That probably went right over Damien Cox’s head.

    Maybe if Bobby Clarke was wearing a full face mask he’d still have his teeth. He’s probably getting laid, though, Sean Avery is and he’s the biggest jerk in the league.

  4. 4 Scott

    The above comment wasn’t from Scott, by the way. It was left by his hot wife.

  5. 5 Peter Lynn

    Any idea who’s laying Jerk Avery now, hot wife? Elisha Cuthbert dumped his ass last summer. He’s got a decent track record of scoring premium poon, but last I heard, he was allegedly paying for sex with hookers being pimped out from the same prostitution ring involved in the Eliot Spitzer scandal.

  6. 6 Scott

    I’m pretty sure he’s sleeping with Martin Brodeur.

  7. 7 Marlene

    I didn’t know that he and Elisha broke up. After a little googling, though, I saw a rumor about him hitting on Paris Hilton (and getting shot down) and also that he was dating Mary-Kate Olsen. I’m not sure who he’s with now, but I’m sure there’s some puck-bunny out there who’s willing.

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