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Risk Homeostasis and Skydiving

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Photo: Michael McGowan

Wikipedia describes the phenomenon as follows: 'Risk homeostasis is a psychological theory developed by Gerald J.S. Wilde, a professor emeritus of psychology at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada...the theory of risk homeostasis states that an individual has an inbuilt target level of acceptable risk which does not change. This level varies between individuals. When the level of acceptable risk in one part of the individual's life changes; there will be a corresponding rise/drop in acceptable risk elsewhere. The same, argues Wilde, is true of larger human systems (e.g. a population of drivers).'

Through the comparison of relevant Sky Diving statistics, recent studies in the field of risk homeostasis show that the introduction of a safety feature does not necessarily improve the generalredistribution This phenomenon, due to a type of 'risk redistribution', was researched by Sky-Diving academics who spotted strange fatality rate fluctuations migrating back and fourth between open canopy fatalities, 'no pull' and 'low pull' cases and others, depending on the adoption of certain safety feature at that time.

The study employed the Cypres (Cybernetic Parachute Release System) Automatic Activation Device (AAD) as an example, which is specifically designed to deploy the reserve parachute at the required altitude, in the event of timing neglect by the jumper.

Risk homeostasis shows that varying individual trends toward risk adjustment become displaced by the introduction of a safety feature. The concept results an inadvertent psychological neglect of natural automated adjustments to these barriers. This leads to a generalised lowered level of risk, instead of unique to the area in which the safety feature is applicable.

The risk then becomes distributed across parameters and is referred to as 'accident migration'.

When this in turn was applied in relation to levels of perceived risk, it was noted that; 'Skydivers adjust their behaviors to maintain arousal at optimal levels'- a behavioral modification linked to inadvertent risk displacement. Levels of risk vary from one person to another and are adjusted in accordance so as to maintain a level of comfort most acceptable to the individual. On the other end of the spectrum, however, more risk can be introduced if the threshold is too low in comparison to what the individual is used to.

In other words, the tendency to take less precaution in presence of a safety measure does not necessarily result in a balanced distribution of risk and as a direct result, risk is inadvertently lowered in other areas. Where there may have been a decrease in 'low pull' or 'no pull' fatalities due to this mechanism, the open canopy fatalities increased, and the introduction of open canopy safety features appeared to coincide with an increase in landing fatalities.

A correlation can be seen concerning traffic accidents, where most of the evidence for risk homeostasis originates. Studies have shown that 'pedestrians are twice as likely to be killed in a painted crosswalk as in an unmarked one' and that driver side airbags in actual fact contributed to driver behaviors that increased accidents and fatalities.

Needless to say, the field of skydiving is a popular target for academic study on the topic of researching risk whether perceived or real. Sensation seeking provides the blueprint for studying risk-taking in social, legal, physical and financial for the sake of such experience. It has been found that personality types within this sphere can be genetically characterized by an elongated version of the DRD4 gene which regulates the production of dopamine and effects pleasure and emotion.

It should therefore come as no surprise that when comparing skydivers to non-skydivers it was found that the former have lower levels of death anxiety, which in turn lends itself to higher levels of target risk. It was also found that Skydivers accept significantly higher levels of risk and that 'More experienced skydivers monitor the risk perceptions of the beginning skydivers in their subcultures.'

Further research will be conducted into how to enforce precautionary measures within the parameters of these findings. To read the original case study visit www.vicnapier.com

Original Authors:

Napier, Vic
Pima Community College
Findley, Carolyn Sara (Casey)
Auburn University Montgomery
Self, Donald Raymond
Auburn University Montgomery



By on 2007-05-18 | Last Modified on 2013-04-18

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