If something seems extremely risky, are we more or less likely to do it? Turns out “that overstating the risks of an activity too much can backfire, causing people to give up and stop trying to protect themselves. This is the opposite of the usual pattern we observe,” according to U-M Economics PhD alumnus Jason Kerwin (’15). Kerwin is now an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.

The research featured on NPR’s Hidden Brain comes from Kerwin’s paper, “Scared Straight or Scared to Death? The Effect of Risk Beliefs on Risky Behaviors.” The episode is titled "How Risk Affects The Way People Think About Their Health." Kerwin’s study looks at the sexual behavior of men in Malawi, a country in southern Africa with a high prevalence of HIV infection. Because many of these men assumed their risk of infection to be close to 100 percent, and that one instant of sexual intercourse with someone who is HIV positive would absolutely infect them, they felt that preventative measures were futile.

Kerwin took two groups of volunteers, informing one of the actual rates and risks of HIV infections. He found that the informed group, where risk was lower than previously assumed, they became more likely to practice safe sexual behaviors.

However, NPR left out an important detail that he mentions in his write-up of the story, Kerwin assumes due to a need for brevity, that the fatalism result does not hold true for everyone. He continues, “Anthropologists have observed rationally fatalistic reasoning among some men in Malawi, not all of them. In my sample, I find fatalistic responses for 14% of people – the ones with the highest risk beliefs. I also find that those people are less likely to think they already have (or will inevitably contract) HIV, and that they are at higher risk for contracting and spreading HIV than the rest of the population.”

A main takeaway from Kerwin is that “we should be cautious when trying to scare people into better behavior by playing up how risky certain activities are.”