What Bicycle Helmets Tell Us About Cultural Norms

I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that uses my stubborn resistance to bicycle helmets to ask a broader question: Are our assessments of risk based largely on the probability of harm, or are they mainly rooted in cultural norms? I believe it’s the latter:

We generally don’t care about statistical risk. What we care about, and what we rely on in our decisions, is risk perception. Paul Slovic is a psychologist at the University of Oregon whose work focuses on risk perception. He makes two important observations: First, not all risks are created equal. People tend to be especially sensitive to risks that are seen as uncontrollable. Second, cultural environments shape risk perceptions. That’s why we continue to drive despite relatively frequent car accidents: Driving is seen, first, as something that can be rendered safe with practice and, second, as a normal mode of transportation. The risks we accept when we climb behind the wheel suddenly appear unacceptable when we mount a bicycle.

The full text is here.