With COVID-19 turning out to be a black box for countries around the world and no playbook at hand, states have been advocating for safety measures such as the use of masks and sanitizers along with practicing social distancing. Though effective, these guidelines may trigger changes in the behavior of people when they follow them, which also alters their sense of risk.
Sam Peltzman, an economist at the University of Chicago in 1975, wrote an article titled ‘The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation’ in the Journal of Political Economy. In the 1970s as seat belts became mandatory in the United States, Peltzman came up with two assumptions. Firstly, he assumed that seatbelts would reduce the chances of fatality in a car crash. Secondly, he expected that drivers feeling safe with the seatbelts on, would drive recklessly, possibly increasing the possibility of a crash putting the lives of others in danger as well.
His interpretation was that both the effects cancelled each other out. This came to be known as the Peltzman effect. His inference being that the pedestrians, fellow drivers or even jaywalkers were at risk with increasingly reckless behavior. People seem to be more heedful while facing a big risk and rather carefree when they feel more protected.
Researchers over the years have studied this behavioral pattern in other areas as well. From ice hockey players to NASCAR drivers, the participants tend to be risk-takers when they are all geared up, and safety measures are in place. Even financial institutions’ appetite for risk increments when cushioned by the government in the form of bailouts.
Facing the invisible enemy, COVID-19 has left us with no choice but wearing masks in public and constantly sanitizing our hands. The sense of security emanating from this leads us to believe that safety protocols make us invincible and keener to undertake risky activities.
Gearing up in the wake of the pandemic may raise our confidence level, and strolling in the public space may sound alluring and less risky. It’s more likely that people will eventually give up on other tools of prevention such as constantly washing hands or maintaining social distance. Instead of flattening the coronavirus curve, this may lead to its elevation.
With the most vulnerable sections of the society like elders or people with underlying illness, this behavioral change may contribute largely to the rate of infection. These groups have low risk-taking appetite and have lower capability of surviving the virus. Protective gears may incentivize them to do away with social distancing and interact more in public spaces.
Taking risk is a part of human nature. Peltzman effect shows that human behavior can inhibit even the best of safety protocols. The introduction of safety measures can compel us to change our mind as people choose their own level of risk.