Science: Worker Burnout and Taking Risks

Clifford Winston joins Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post to discuss human behavior and worker burnout on Department of Human Behavior online chat. 

Shankar Vedantam: Welcome to this online chat to discuss my Department of Human Behavior column today about unintended consequences of interventions, and also my science page story today that suggests that perceptions of unfairness play a powerful role in whether employees experience burnout. I am happy to take questions on either topic. For column-related questions, I am joined by Cliff Winston at the Brookings Institution. Dr Winston is an economist who has studied the sometimes paradoxical and counter-intuitive effects of government interventions. He found, for example, that when automakers gave people the option to buy cars with air bags, the safety devices did not produce the expected results. (See why in the conversation below.) Winston’s work speaks to a term that has come up in the news recently — moral hazard. The term refers to the propensity of people to take on more risk than they ought to when they feel they have a safety net. Potential examples would range from the bailout of Bear Stearns, the big Wall Street firm that was deemed “too big to fail” and the dilemma faced by Democrats on whether to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida in the presidential primary race, when those states violated DNC rules as to when to hold primaries. Penalizing people when they violate the rules strengthens the rules, but makes people upset, as we saw in the political example. Bending the rules, as we saw with Bear Stearns, keeps people happier, but potentially makes it more likely that other people will also break rules because they suspect they will not be penalized … I’ll start us off with some initial questions for Dr Winston.

Shankar Vedantam: Dr Winston, you told me in our interview about your research into the safety effects of airbags. Could you summarize for our readers what you found — and why safety devices might not always produce the safety we desire?

Clifford Winston: My collaborators and I assessed the safety effects of airbags in two steps. First, we analyzed the types of drivers who acquired vehicles with airbags back when airbags were an option and not in widespread use. Second, we determined how drivers’ behavior and safety changed-if at all-because their car had an airbag. We found that the safest drivers tended to acquire vehicles with airbags and that these “safe drivers” then took advantage of the technological benefits of airbags by driving more aggressively. As a result of having airbags, these individuals’ initial level of safety was not decreased by their driving somewhat faster. At the same time, however, overall highway safety was not improved. In a nutshell, certain drivers “offset” the technological safety benefits of airbags by taking greater risks when they drove.

Shankar Vedantam: There is a large amount of research showing that when people feel they have reduced risk, they take more chances. People ride their bikes on more difficult terrain when they are wearing helmets; people seem more careless leaving cigarette lighters around their children when the lighters have a safety lock. Can you give us a short overview of the idea sometimes known as “offsetting behavior” and explain why it comes about?

Clifford Winston: The “offsetting behavior” you’re summarizing is based on an idea developed in a number of disciplines, including economics, psychology, and transportation engineering. The idea, in theory, is that people start out with an initial threshold level of risk that they are willing to accept. If their environment becomes safer because of, say, the introduction of safety devices such as helmets, lighter locks, and the like, they may change their behavior by taking additional risks until they reach their initial risk threshold. In practice, in the process of re-assessing their original risk preferences in a new, safer environment, people may exceed their initial risk thresholds. In any case, it is common to observe people engaging in risky behavior that they once avoided because they perceive that the introduction of a safety device has made them safer. Thus, public policies that mandate certain safety devices may have unintended consequences by leading to “offsetting” behavior that reduces the technological benefits of the devices. The example of a person choosing airbags as an option and then driving faster is another example of this kind of behavior.

Read the full interview »

Read The Washington Post article »