Better safe than sorry: Precautionary reasoning and implied dominance in risky decisions

Authors

  • Michael L. DeKay,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA
    • Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, 224 Lazenby Hall, 1827 Neil Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210, USA.
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  • Dalia Patiño-Echeverri,

    1. Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
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  • Paul S. Fischbeck

    1. Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
    2. Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
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Abstract

In four studies, student and nonstudent participants evaluated the possible outcomes of binary decisions involving health, safety, and environmental risks (e.g., whether to issue a dam-failure evacuation order). Many participants indicated that false positives (e.g., evacuation, but no dam failure) were better than true negatives (e.g., no evacuation and no dam failure), thereby implying that the more protective action dominated the less protective action. A common rationale for this response pattern was the precautionary maxim “better safe than sorry.” Participants apparently evaluated outcomes partly on the basis of the decisions that might lead to them, in conflict with consequentialist decision models. Consistent with this explanation, the prevalence of implied dominance decreased substantially when the emphasis on decisions was reduced. These results demonstrate that an initial preference for a decision alternative can alter the evaluation of possible consequences of both the preferred alternative and a competing alternative, suggesting positive feedback loops that reinforce the initial preference. The rationality of considering the decision itself as an attribute of possible outcomes is discussed. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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