Essay How And Why Consumers Normalize Risk


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An essay on how and why consumer normalize risk

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Essay How And Why Consumers Normalize Risk

  1. 1. How and Why Consumers Normalize Risk Seth Breedlove Consumers often rationalize and normalize risk for the many products and activities they consume. The variety of such behavior is wide: • The consumption of illegal substances, such as narcotics; • Known health hazards such as tobacco or high-risk professions, • Unknown and untested possible hazards such as genetically modified food or mad-cow disease; • High-risk sexual practices; • Risky investments such as timeshares; • Buying stocks in companies with no revenue during the era or the housing bubble despite warnings that rising prices and low rates could not go on forever. What is common in all these activities is that a person is exposed to a group mindset in which the norms and values of the group are altered to accept high-risk consumption as normal and acceptable. When a person first becomes acquainted with a new group or culture, that individual learns new symbols and meanings. For example, there have been numerous studies, such as this one in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing the correlation between individuals gaining weight by socializing or becoming acculturated into groups of overweight people. Instead of the individual viewing overweight as a symbol of being unhealthy, it becomes a symbol of being normal. Likewise, the behaviors (possibly) associated with it, such as an unbalanced diet or lack of physical exercise, become normalized and seen as acceptable. The same could be true for body-builders who are acculturated into a competitive group and join in the use of steroids to gain an edge. Average bodies may no longer be perceived as normal, and large muscular bodies become the new normal. By adopting group norms, there is the perceived award of acceptance and being a part of new group. Technology has assisted individuals in normalizing risk in two important ways. One, it makes it easier for individuals to engage in risk, such as buying stocks with a few clicks of a button. Secondly, it makes it easier for individuals to seek out groups that engage in a dangerous behavior such as motor cycle racing or spelunking. As a person becomes acculturated to the risk and has a command of the language and symbols associated with that behavior, they tend to feel that have a higher degree of control over the outcomes of the activities. With repeated exposure to the risky activity, one believes that they “know what they are doing” and are immune to the risk. When undesirable outcomes happen to others, such as a drug user who overdoses or a mountain climber who falls off a cliff, that outcome is viewed as “that person did not follow the rules” and “it will not happen to me because I do follow the rules.”
  2. 2. There are instances when one’s perception of adverse outcomes may be seen as normal or outside an individual’s control. For example, crab fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs on the planets and fatalities are common. A crab fisherman may simply perceive that this is normal or that he has no choice over his career. Additionally, there may be strong social pressures to adapt to new values and norms. Many individuals that invested in homes during the housing bubble, despite warnings the market could not go up forever, were afraid of missing the boat and being left behind by those who did invest. The need to belong can impose great influence on an individual’s behavior, whether that person is conscious of it or not. The market can exert great social pressure on people with messages of “Act now or lose out.” The desire for personal attainment, success, social position and actualization may also drive the person to take on risky consumptions and ignore possible consequences. An individual may also feel they are immune to consequences because of the belief that the repercussions will be absorbed by the group. Since they are not the only ones engaging in an activity, they may believe they are shielded from harm, or that the harm will be dissipated. A mountain climber may erroneously rationalize that if he or she is climbing with ten people the chances of a falling are now only one out of ten. When groups engage in illegal or bad behavior, they feel less likely to be singled out and if everyone is doing “it,” it somehow becomes less bad. We’ve seen groups of people herding across a street in order to stop traffic. However, in reality if a car doesn’t stop, being in a group may not provide sufficient protection. When groups engage in risky behavior there is almost always an individual that seems immune to the consequences. That individual may serve as a symbol of “it won’t happen to me”--until it does happen to either person. How many stories have we heard from famous people who risked everything saying that they always knew they would be famous, but we never hear from the ones that thought they always knew they would become famous, but did not. To a great extent this can be a good thing. Where would we be if Benjamin Franklin wasn’t foolish enough to go fly a kite during a lighting storm? Was it the need for social status or belonging? Did his friends dare him or did he not have the language or values to perceive the risk? Or was the drive to succeed and hoped-for reward much greater than the consequence? We all can be influenced into normalizing risk, whether we are conscious of it at the time or not. The choice we do have is to reflect and decide if it is really in our best interest or not.