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Are We All Less Risky and More Skillful than our Fellow Drivers?

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In this study subjects were asked about their competence as drivers in relation to a group of drivers. The results showed that a majority of subjects regarded themselves as more skillful and less risky than the average driver in each group respectively. This result was compared with similar recent findings in other fields. Finally, the consequences for planning and risk taking of seeing oneself as more competent than others were discussed briefly.
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Acta Psychologica 47 (1981) 143-148
0 North-Holland Publishing Company
ARE WE ALL LESS RISKY AND MORE SKILLFUL THAN OUR
FELLOW DRIVERS? *
Ola SVENSON
Department of Psychology, University of Stockholm, Sweden
Accepted March 1980
In this study subjects were asked about their competence as drivers in relation to a group of
drivers. The results showed that a majority of subjects regarded themselves as more skillful and
less risky than the average driver in each group respectively. This result was compared with sim-
ilar recent findings in other fields. Finally, the consequences for planning and risk taking of
seeing oneself as more competent than others were discussed briefly.
Do people engaged in a risky activity where skill plays some role, have
an unbiased view of their own skill and risk taking? More specifically,
do they have a correct conception of their own skill and risk taking
behavior, e.g., in comparison to others?
One of the most common and best known risky activity in modern
society is that of driving a car. Therefore, some observations of drivers’
notions of their own driving skills and risk taking behavior will be pre-
sented in this paper. The observations will then be used as a start for a
brief discussion of the importance of an actor’s self image on his risk
taking behavior and his readiness to find information about risk and
safety applicable to himself.
For a long time it has been asserted (ct Naatanen and Summala
1975) that most drivers tend to believe that they are better drivers than
the average driver. This assertion was based on studies made several
decades ago and poorly documented in reports now virtually impossible
* This study was sponsored by the Swedish Council for Social Science Research. I want to
thank the people at Decision Research, a branch of Perceptronics, in Eugene, Oregon, Kit Sjo-
berg and Berndt Brehmer for support and discussions about the paper.
Author’s address: Dept. of Psychology, University of Stockholm, Box 6706, S-11385 Stock-
holm, Sweden.
143
144 0. Svenson /Estimates of risk and skill
to obtain (but for a summary see Naatanen and Summala 1975). In
these studies subjects were asked to judge how safely they drove in
comparison with the average driver, vaguely defined as drivers in gen-
eral. Typically, the results showed that around 70-80% of the subjects
were reported to put themselves in the safer half of the distribution.
The following experiment was performed in order to try to replicate
the earlier findings but in a situation where the subjects were asked to
compare themselves with a more well-defined population of drivers
whose characteristics were, at least partly, known to the subjects. Such
comparisons should reduce possible effects of group stereotypes (e.g.,
“California drivers are better drivers”) which could explain part of the
earlier results.
The experiment
Subjects
A total of 161 Ss participated in the experiment. Of these 81 were American stu-
dents who responded to an advertisement in the University of Oregon student paper
and had a driver’s licence. The median age of the US Ss was 22 years. Forty-one of
them judged their skill in driving and 40 judged how safe they were as drivers. In
Sweden, Ss were recruited among psychology students at the University of Stock-
holm having a driver’s licence. Eighty students with a median age of 33 years partic-
ipated. Driving skill was judged by 45 and safety by 35 of the Swedish students.
Method
In the US group the questions were given in written form to the Ss as one of several
tasks to judge in a session involving a variety of other judgment tasks.
The Swedish Ss were also given the questions in written form but did not have
any more task to fulfill in the session. To illustrate, the question concerning safety
was formulated as follows:
We would like to know about what you think about how safely you drive an
automobile. All drivers are not equally safe drivers. We want you to compare
your own skill to the skills of the other people in this experiment. By definition,
there is a least safe and a most safe driver in this room. We want you to indicate
your own estimated position in this experimental group (and not, e.g., Eugene,
Oregon or in the U.SJ (or (and not e.g., people in Stockholm or in Sweden)).
Of course, this is a difficult question because you do not know all the people
gathered here today, much less how safely they drive. But please make the most
accurate estimate you can.
Table 1
Distribution of percent of estimates over degree of safe and skillful driving in relation to other drivers. Higher percentiles represent less risky and
more skillful driving.
Estimated position in sample (percentiles)
O-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80 81-90 91-100
safety
US sample
Swedish sample
Skill
US sample
Swedish sample
2.5 0.0 5.0 0.0 5.0 2.5 2.5 22.5 37.5 22.5
0.0 5.7 0.0 14.3 2.9 11.4 14.3 28.6 17.1 5.7
0.0 2.4 2.4 2.4 0.0 12.2 22.0 12.2 26.8 19.5
2.2 6.7 2.2 4.4 15.5 17.7 11.1 24.4 13.3 2.2
146 0. Svenson /Estimates of risk and skill
The question about driving skill was given in the same way as the question about
safety with minor changes in wording to fit the task. The responses were given on
a percentile scale by marking one of 10 successive 10 percent intervals.
Results
The distributions of the judgments are shown in table 1 for the two groups and the
two questions respectively. The table shows that most of the Ss in the group viewed
themselves as safer and more skillful drivers than the rest of the group.
The medians for the distributions of safety judgments in table 1 fall in the inter-
val 8 l-90% for the US group and between 7 1 and 80% for the Swedish group. This
indicates that half of the Ss believe themselves to be among the safest 20 (US) or 30
(Sweden) percent of the drivers in the two groups respectively. In the US group
88% and in the Swedish group 77% believed themselves to be safer than the median
driver.
The medians for the distributions of skill judgments fall in the interval 61-70%
for the US group and between 51-60% for the Swedish group. Of the US sample
46.3% regard themselves among the most skillful 20%. The corresponding number
in the Swedish group was only 15.5%. In the US sample 93% believed themselves to
be more skillful drivers than the median driver and 69% of the Swedish drivers
shared this belief in relation to their comparison group.
In summary, there was a strong tendency to believe oneself as safer and more
skillful than the average driver. In addition, there seemed to be a stronger tendency
to believe oneself as safer than and more skillful than the average person.
Discussion
Very clearly, the present results illustrate a strong tendency among the
subjects to believe themselves to be more skillful and less risky than the
others in the groups. These results may reflect purely cognitive mecha-
nisms or may be mainly a result of lacking information about the others
in the group which may lead a majority of the people to regard them-
selves as “better”. For example, the results may be explained by cog-
nitive mechanisms, such as, low memory availability of negative events
(e.g., accidents or near accidents) in the experimental situation (ct
Tversky and Kahneman 1974; Svenson 1978). But there is also evidence
pointing at greater generality of the findings (cJ: Slavic et al. 1978). For
instance, Preston and Harris ( 1965) compared 50 drivers whose driving
involved them in accidents (serious enough to require hospitalization)
with 50 drivers without accident histories but matched in relevant vari-
ables. When asked about how skillful drivers they were, the two groups
0. Svenson / Estimates of risk and skill 147
gave almost identical means indicating that the average driver, irre-
spective of accident record, judged himself to be more skillful than the
average on the nine point scale. According to police records 34 of the
drivers in the accident group were responsible for the accidents. The
accident group had a higher frequency of previous traffic violations.
This seems to indicate that we have difficulties in learning from experi-
ence (cc Brehmer 1980).
Traffic safety campaigns with general road safety propaganda seem
to have short-lived effects, if any (~5 Wilde 1972) which is quite under-
standable if we believe ourselves safer than most others. Why should we
pay much attention to information directed towards drivers in general
if we are safer and more skillful than they are?
Similar findings indicating prevailing views of oneself as generally
more favorable than others have been reported also in other areas such
as ethics (Baumhart 1968), success in sales management (Larwood and
Whittaker 1977), attribution of responsibility (Miller and Ross 1975;
Regan et al. 1975; Ross and Sicoly 1979). By way of example, Lar-
wood and Whittaker (1977) found that management students and cor-
porate presidents held a self-serving bias of their own competence
which lead to overly optimistic and risky planning for the future. Thus,
believing oneself as more skillful than others may lead to greater risk
taking which is positively reinforced for those who “win the game” and
are successful (e.g., stay on top positions in business or administration).
The same reasoning also applies to the successful risky driver but here
the gain of success tends to be less and the cost in suffering and money
for failures (accidents) seems to be intolerably great.
References
Baumhart, R., 1968. Ethics in business. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Brehmer, B., 1980. In one word: not from experience. Acta Psychologica 45,223-241.
Larwood, L. and W. Whittaker, 1977. ManegeriaJ myopia: self-serving biases in organizational
planning. Journal of Applied Psychology 62,194-198.
Miller, D.T. and M. Ross, 1975. Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: fact or fic-
tion? Psychological Bulletin 82, 213-225.
Ntitiinen, R. and H. Summala, 1975. Road-user behavior and traffic accidents. Amsterdam:
North-Holland.
Preston, C.E. and S. Harris, 1965. Psychology of drivers in traffic accidents. Journal of Applied
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Regan, J.W., H. Gosselink, J. Hubsch and E. Ulsh, 1975. Do people have inflated views of their
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Ross, M. and F. Sicoly, 1979. Egocentric biases in availability and attribution. Journal of Per-
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Conducted 5 experiments to assess biases in availability of information in memory and attributions of responsibility for the actions and decisions that occurred during a previous group interaction. The S populations sampled included naturally occurring discussion groups (of undergraduates), 37 married couples, 74 female and 84 male players on intercollegiate basketball teams, and groups of undergraduates assembled in the laboratory. Data provide consistent evidence for egocentric biases in availability and attribution: The S's own contributions to a joint product were more readily available, i.e., more frequently and easily recalled, and Ss accepted more responsibility for a group product than other participants attributed to them. In addition, statements attributed to the self were recalled more accurately and the availability bias was attenuated, though not eliminated, when the group product was negatively evaluated. When another S's contributions were made more available to the S via a selective retrieval process, this S allocated correspondingly more responsibility for the group decisions to the coparticipant. The determinants and pervasiveness of the egocentric biases are considered. (27 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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Transportation systems in the industrialized world require vast amounts of economic and human resources. Most of the risks associated with these systems are due to the frequent use of private cars. This paper gives a review of the literature and psychological facts which may explain why the individual driver and modern society seem willing to accept higher risks in road transportation than in most other activities. Risky driving behavior may depend on (a) a driver's overestimation of his driving skill in a particular situation, (b) his conscious decision to drive under high risk or (c) his failure to perceive risk in a particular situation. It is pointed out that different means must be used in order to affect a change in these factors, mainly, training programs, the spread of information to change drivers' attitudes towards traffic risks, and environmental design changes to subjective risk. In general, empirical research indicates that greater risks are accepted if some kind of control is experienced in a situation and this is especially applicable to driving. Objective and subjective estimates of the riskiness of different elements inherent in road traffic seem to coincide fairly well with regard to a road's physical characteristics. But objective risks are underestimated in relation to speed, black spots, night driving, and narrow roads. The importance of these factors, and of alcohol intoxication and imitative behaviour for risk taking, is discussed. Comparisons of the estimated risks of different transportation systems and other risk sources are discussed. The attribution of the responsibility for an accident is very important for the risks accepted by a society. If the responsibility can be attributed to individual risk takers, as in car driving, society is willing to accept higher risk levels. Finally, the prevailing within-system perspective on risks in road transportation is contrasted with the more important and difficult global perspective which puts the risks of the road transportation system in a societal context.
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Motorists' reluctance to wear seat belts is examined in light of research showing (a) that protective behavior is influenced more by the probability of a hazard than by the magnitude of its consequences and (b) that people are not inclined to protect themselves voluntarily against very low probability threats. It is argued that the probability of death or injury on any single auto trip may be too low to incite a motorist's concern. Maintenance of a “single trip” perspective makes it unlikely that seat belts will be used. Change of perspective, towards consideration of the risks faced during a lifetime of driving, may increase the perceived probabilities of injury and death and, therefore, induce more people to wear seat belts.
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Recent work indicates that people hold a variety of self-serving biases, believing themselves more capable than they are in fact. Such biases, if extended to the organizational level, would lead to overly optimistic planning for the future. This prediction was tested with 2 groups of management students (37 freshmenn and 35 seniors and with 48 male corporate presidents in 3 studies. Management students consistently overestimated their abilities; in a marketing exercise, they likewise indicated that a hypothetical firm, of which they were sales managers, would quickly overtake established competition. Executive Ss also predicted inordinate success; the latter group, however, moderated projections somewhat if prior planning experience had been unsatisfactory. The importance of managerial myopia to considerations of marketing, resource management, and demarketing is discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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A review of the evidence for and against the proposition that self-serving biases affect attributions of causality indicates that there is little empirical support for the proposition in its most general form. Some support was found for the contention that individuals engage in self-enhancing attributions under conditions of success, but only minimal evidence suggested that individuals engage in self-protective attributions under conditions of failure. Moreover, it was proposed that the self-enhancing effect may not be due to motivational distortion, but rather to the tendency of people to (a) expect their behavior to produce success, (b) discern a closer covariation between behavior and outcomes in the case of increasing success than in the case of constant failure, and (c) misconstrue the meaning of contingency. (60 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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Studies on clinical inference show that people do not always improve their judgments with experience. This paper argues that the expectation that they will improve is mistaken and founded on an incorrect conception of the nature of experience. Changing this conception towards a more adequate one along the lines suggested by Popper (1963) leads to a far more pessimistic view about people's ability to learn from experience, a view that is in closer corrrespondence with the facts from studies on clinical judgement. The paper also reviews results from psychological studies concerned with people's ability to learn from experience in probabilistic situations. These studies show that people have a number of biases which prevent them from using the information which experience provides. Examples of such biases are the tendency to use confirmatory evidence, assumptions about causality, and disregard of negative information. The paper argues that these biases can be understood in terms of the kind of information that people actually have to use when learning from experience outside the laboratory.
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This article described three heuristics that are employed in making judgements under uncertainty: (i) representativeness, which is usually employed when people are asked to judge the probability that an object or event A belongs to class or process B; (ii) availability of instances or scenarios, which is often employed when people are asked to assess the frequency of a class or the plausibility of a particular development; and (iii) adjustment from an anchor, which is usually employed in numerical prediction when a relevant value is available. These heuristics are highly economical and usually effective, but they lead to systematic and predictable errors. A better understanding of these heuristics and of the biases to which they lead could improve judgements and decisions in situations of uncertainty.
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An experiment tested a need-for-self-esteem notion that people inflate self-appraisals of ability, deny criticism, and overrespond to praise. Actors and bystanders rated actors' performances on a nonobjective task after hearing the performance praised or criticized or before hearing it evaluated. No evidence of self-enhancement was found; to the contrary, actors compared to bystanders rated themselves harshly, lowered their ratings after criticism equally, and showed relief after praise. A second experiment compared actor and bystander ratings of actors who expected evaluation of their performances or who expected no evaluation. Results suggested self-derogation by actors as a defense against possible loss of self-esteem.
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50 automobile drivers whose driving involved them in accidents serious enough to require hospitalization were paired with 50 drivers without accident histories but matched according to sex, approximate age, race, and educational level. The Ss were compared on the basis of their driving experiences and performance on written tests. The accident victims differed from the comparison Ss in a higher incidence of previous traffic violations but were not distinguishable from the comparison Ss on any written tests. The accident Ss were similar to the "safe" drivers in describing themselves as much closer to "expert" than "very poor" on a driving performance continuum. In fixing the responsibility for the accidents and in estimating their driving competence at the time of the accidents, the accident Ss' reports are at considerable variance with police reports.
Road-user behavior and traffic accidents
  • R Ntitiinen
  • H Summala
Ntitiinen, R. and H. Summala, 1975. Road-user behavior and traffic accidents. Amsterdam: North-Holland.