Why People Reject Things That Keep Them Safe

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When it comes to health and safety, Americans tend not to take the best precautions: we text behind the wheel, overeat, exercise too little and smoke and drink too much. Add to that the fact that we also tend to be unable to assess true risks to our safety in a rational way.

In other words, we let our emotions get in the way of rational decision-making, especially when it comes to embracing products that are meant to keep us safe — airbags, vaccines, smoke detectors, for instance. When people learn about the risks of these products, they tend to feel betrayed and avoid them, according to a new study published this week in the Journal of Consumer Research, even if it means endangering their own safety. (More on Time.com: Young Adults Choose Self-Esteem Boost Over Sex and Money)

“People rely on airbags, smoke detectors, and vaccines to make them safe,” wrote authors Andrew D. Gershoff, an associate professor of marketing at the Red McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and Johnathan J. Koehler, a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “Unfortunately, vaccines do sometimes cause disease and airbags sometimes injure or kill. But just because these devices aren’t perfect doesn’t mean consumers should reject them outright.”

The phenomenon helps explain why so many parents choose not to vaccinate children; they weigh fears of adverse reactions more heavily than the fact that vaccines have been overwhelmingly proven to protect children from potentially deadly disease.

In California, for instance, 8.9% of the state’s kindergartners were not fully vaccinated for the 2009-10 school year, according to California Department of Public Health data. Marin and Sonoma counties had the highest rates of unvaccinated children in the state, at 16.73% and 11.73%, respectively. By comparison, nationwide, 7.1% of kindergartners weren’t fully vaccinated in the 2008-09 school year. (More on Time.com: Consumer Breakups: Why We Lash Out at the Brands We Once Loved)

In part because of the state’s low vaccination rates, in 2010, California saw a pertussis outbreak kill ten children and affect 8,383 others — the largest epidemic in 63 years. Recently, California passed legislation to make a pertussis booster vaccination mandatory for 7th to 12th graders in the 2011 school year.

For the new study on safety-related decision-making, Gershoff and Koehler recruited groups of volunteers, ranging in size from 120 to 246, to participate in a series of five experiments.

In one experiment, participants were offered one of two cars, both with airbags, but each with a different safety profile. The paper explained:

For one of the cars, participants were told that “scientific crash tests indicate that there is a 2% chance that drivers who are in a serious accident [in this car] will be killed due to the impact of the crash.” This was the higher overall risk option (2%), and it was not associated with any risk of safety product [i.e., airbag] betrayal. For the other car, participants were told that “scientific crash tests indicate there is a 1% chance that drivers who are in serious accidents risk death due to the impact of the crash,” and that drivers of this car faced an additional “one chance in 10,000 (.01%) risk of death.” This is the lower overall risk option (1.01%).

The participants were then informed that the additional risk of death in the second car was attributable either to “trauma caused by the force of the airbag deployment” or to the failure of the airbag to open — “active” versus “passive” betrayal. (More on Time.com: The Business of Weird: Why People Pay for Bizarre Experiences)

The researchers found that participants who were told that the airbag could cause deadly trauma were more likely to choose the higher-risk option without the airbag-malfunction element — that is, the first car, which had the overall deadlier crash-risk profile of 2% — than the safer option with the possible malfunction.

“The findings show that people have strong emotional reactions when such safety devices have even a very small potential to betray them,” the authors wrote. “So rather than weighing the costs and benefits, they will reject these options outright, even if it makes them worse off for doing so.”

In another experiment, researchers presented a new group with the same car choices, but this time helped some of them weigh the costs and benefits by showing them graphs that clearly laid out the probability of death or injury with either airbag option. In this case, study participants who saw the graphs were less likely to have an irrational reaction to the potential of a malfunctioning airbag, but still showed an aversion to it when told there was a risk of “active” betrayal. (More on Time.com: Forget the Joneses: How Envy Drives Destructive Behavior)

In further experiments, the researchers also found that when participants were making safety decisions for other people rather than for themselves, they were more likely to make the rational choice, picking the lower-risk vehicle, even with its potential airbag malfunction.

Interestingly, it was participants who scored high on a personality test measuring intuitive thinking who were most likely to avoid safety products because of a small potential risk of an adverse outcome.

“Our research has implications for social policymakers and health professionals,” wrote the authors. “Policymakers, who generally prefer alternatives that maximize overall safety, need to be sensitive to the possibility that members of the public will find some of those alternatives emotionally repugnant. Indeed, large portions of the public may act in ways that put them at increased risk.”