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Better Safe than Sorry: Precautionary Reasoning and Implied Dominance in Risky Decisions
Any type of content formally published in an academic journal, usually following a peer-review process.
posted on 01.01.2005by Michael L. DeKay, Dalia Patiño-Echeverri, Paul S. Fischbeck
In four studies, student and nonstudent participants evaluated the possible outcomes of binary
decisions involving health, safety, and environmental risks (e.g., whether to issue a dam-failure
evacuation order). Many participants indicated that false positives (e.g., evacuation, but no dam
failure) were better than true negatives (e.g., no evacuation and no dam failure), thereby
implying that an incorrect decision was better than a correct one, and that the more protective
action dominated the less protective action. A common rationale for this response pattern was
the precautionary maxim “Better safe than sorry.” Participants apparently evaluated outcomes
partly on the basis of the decisions that might lead to them, in conflict with consequentialist
decision models. Consistent with this explanation, the prevalence of implied dominance
decreased substantially when the emphasis on decisions was reduced. These results demonstrate
that initial preferences for decision alternatives can seriously bias the evaluation of consequences
in risky high-stakes decisions.