Humans Evolved to Fear Snakes, Not High-Risk Mortgages or Risks at Traffic Lights

snakes on a plane risk taking photo

(Screenshot from the film Snakes on a Plane)

Is technology, made to better our lives, killing us? Kids have stopped playing on trees, and this isn't healthy, reported TreeHugger's Lloyd last week, citing a UK study that found more and more kids staying inside (playing on computers and video games) are avoiding risky play.

According to the study, kids need the adventure of "risky" play: "Risk-taking increases the resilience of children," said one researcher. "It helps them make judgments," said another. They list examples of risky play that should be encouraged including fire-building, den-making, watersports, paintballing, boxing and climbing trees.

That story fits in nicely with new research reported by Israeli researchers, and may give us some insight into why pedestrians and cyclists are getting hit by cars when hooked into their iPods; and why so many people are still dying from car accidents. Apparently, explains Arnon Lotem a researcher at Tel Aviv University, our ancient instincts don't meet the decision-making needs of a modern world.

Take for example driving. The traffic light ahead of you has turned yellow. Do you gun it and speed through the intersection, trusting that others will wait for their green, or are you the type who will slow down and wait your turn? The answer depends more on experience than personality, according to Lotem, a behavioral ecologist who reported his research in Nature.

arnon lotem risk taking researcher photo
Lotem found that modern people have adopted risk-taking behaviors similar to those of animals like rats and bees. And this behavior, Prof. Lotem says might not prepare humankind for the types modern dangers we face every day -- like crossing the street, accepting a high-risk mortgage, driving on the freeway, or flying a plane.

While our risk-taking behavior had its advantages when we were living as cave-dwellers, it poses new and potentially dangerous challenges in our modern technology-driven world: "People want to know how people make decisions, whether it's how you drive your car, or whether to invest in a mortgage. It's important to understand when and how we make those decisions, to understand the type of errors people are prone to make," he says.

"What we have found is that people make decisions based on what option 'appears' to be better most of the time. Under conditions in the natural world this would be the best strategy, but in modern life it has nothing do with the real inherent risks," he adds, citing our individual responses to yellow lights.

A Calculated Risk, You Do the Math

People are aware of the actual risks when driving through a light at an intersection, but unless they've already had a brush-with-death, says Lotem, or a brush-with-a-traffic-cop, the perceived risk remains low. This is because in most cases nothing happens to the risk-taker. "You save one minute, but you can lose everything. People don't do the math," he says.

Lotem's study found that, presented with simple decision-making stimuli, people are not analyzing the complete situation based on logical rationales or statistics. Instead, they appear to be making decisions based on simple strategies for coping in nature, based mainly on personal experience.

This tactic might have worked fine for surviving the jungle or desert, but did not evolve to survive the modern world. "We've evolved to be afraid of snakes, but not traffic lights," he says.

The results of Lotem's research may also be used by economists, politicians and psychologists who need to know when people will take risks. A wider understanding of this phenomenon can affect business decisions, the economy — and hopefully the number of road accidents in America each year.

The study's participants also included a team of scientists from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and The Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

More on risk-taking in the modern environment, greening your iPod
Risk Taking Increases Resilience of Children
Green Your iPod in 3 Steps
Dangers of iPods on Cyclists and Pedestrians
Margaret Wente on Understanding Risks


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