Sunday, April 24, 2011

Chocolates and betrayal aversion

A post by Homepaddock triggered my memory of a psychology article I read as part of a management course a while ago, coupled with an argument raging in my house this weekend over superiority of Easter eggs. I am very partial to plain, hollow, non-Cadbury eggs, and have always spurned the gloopy Creme Eggs. The rest of the family, however, dares to disagree with me, and came back from the supermarket yesterday with vast quantities of disgusting Cadbury chocolates (the disgustingness of which I have blogged about in the past) . They justified this lapse in judgement with, "but you've lost so much weight this year and you're looking really good now and you're so much healthier, so we thought you wouldn't appreciate any temptations.  Probably."

Oh, thank you so much for caring, but your answer is as wrong as that dissatisfying mucus in Creme Eggs.  The fattening aspect did not feature in my decision to go for one chocolate over another, so why do you feel the need to attribute a risk factor now?  The only risk I can identify is chocolate withdrawal, but they seem to have identified an extreme risk of death through fat.

How do people analyse risks to determine the best course of action?

If I take their argument, let me imagine that I was given a choice of a hollow egg and a Creme Egg, and I  was planning to make my decision based on which offered the most protection from death. The Creme Egg has a higher sugar content, and therefore, we'll say, an imaginary 2% risk of death; the Swiss-made hollow egg has no sugary mucus in it, and is therefore supremely healthier (although I concede I have not compared the nutritional information), with a 1% chance of death. All other factors being equal, those who are death averse will choose the hollow egg with the lower sugar, right?

Not necessarily and the reason is a widespread but seldom noted phenomenon: betrayal aversion.

A recent paper by Gershoff and Koehler, Safety First ? The Role of Emotion in Safety Product Betrayal Aversion, published in the January issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, notes that some risks are apparently more frightening than others.
Consumers often face decisions about whether to purchase products that are intended to protect them from possible harm. However, ...products rarely provide perfect protection and sometimes "betray" consumers by causing the very harm they are intended to prevent. Examples include vaccines that may cause disease and air bags that may explode with such force that they cause death. ... 
Using the above Easter deliciousness example, what would happen if consumers were also told that the hollow egg contains a carcinogen, therefore increasing the risk of dying by an additional 0.01%. In other words, the Creme Egg is associated with a 2% risk of death, and the hollow egg is associated with a 1% + 0.01% risk of death.  Of course, this doesn't factor the hormonal risk associated with chocolate deprivation.

Most would choose the Creme Egg, even though it had double the increased risk of  death. That's because, for most participants, the tiny risk of "betrayal" (product malfunction, in this case, carcinogen) is much more frightening that the much larger risk of actually dying.

It is this visceral reaction that causes people to make irrational decisions about what to eat at Easter. When parents balance the much larger risk of a child dying from choking on Creme Egg fat against the tiny chance of a child being injured by a shard of hollow egg fat, they regard the possibility of product betrayal with out-sized horror. And because they are horrified by the tiny risk, they paradoxically choose the much larger risk. Ironically, they actually think that they are "protecting" themselves by embracing the much higher risk of death from gloop fat.

If, after careful consideration of the actual risks, some people elect to accept the higher risk of harm from a Creme Egg over the much smaller risk of harm from a hollow egg, they have every right to do so. But in order to carefully consider the risks, people need to realise that their emotional reaction to product betrayal may be clouding their assessment of the magnitude of the risks.

I'm just saying.

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