A taboo tradeoff occurs when we are faced with the dilemma of exchanging something that we are not supposed to give up for money, food, or other resources. Our time, attention, energy, and sometimes even our happiness are perfectly legitimate to trade, but things like health and safety generally are not. We are expected to exchange our time, attention, and physical labor for money, but we are not expected to exchange our personal health for money. When I first read about taboo tradeoffs in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, the year was 2019, and we had not yet entered into a period of time defined by a global pandemic where people began to challenge the taboo against trading health and safety for entertainment, for trials for COVID-19 cures, and to signal their political allegiance.
In the book, Kahneman suggests that holding to hard rules against taboo tradeoffs actually makes us all worse off in the end. “The taboo tradeoff against accepting any increase in risk is not an efficient way to use the safety budget,” he writes. Kahneman’s point is that we can spend huge amounts of resources to ensure that there is absolutely no risk to ourselves, our children, or to others, but that we would be better off allocating those resources in a different way. I think Kahneman is correct, but I think that his message has the potential to be read very differently in 2020, and deserves more careful and nuanced discussion.
“The intense aversion to trading increased risk for some other advantage plays out on a grand scale in the laws and regulations governing risk.” The important point to note is that complete security and safety comes at a cost of other advantages. The advantage to driving to a football game is that we get to enjoy watching live sports, the risk is that we could be in a serious traffic accident. The advantage of using bug spray is that we kill the creepy crawlies in the dark corners of the garage, the risk is that we (or a child or pet) could accidently ingest the poison. The safest things to do would be to watch the game on TV and to use a broom and boot to kill the bugs, but if we avoid the risk then we give up the advantages of seeing live sports and using efficient pest control products.
Kahneman notes that when we make these decisions, we often make them based on a fear of regret more than out of altruistic concerns for our own health and safety or for the health and safety of others. If you traded some level of risk of your child’s safety, and they died, you would feel immense regret and shame, and so you avoid the taboo tradeoff to prevent your own shame. When this plays out across society in millions of large and small examples, we end up in a collectively risk averse paralysis, and society gives up huge advantages because there is a possibility of risk for some individuals.
To address the current global state of affairs, I think Kahneman would recognize the risk of COVID-19 and would not encourage us to trade our health and safety (and the health and safety of others) for the enjoyment of a birthday party, holiday meal, or other type of gathering without wearing masks and taking other precautions. Throughout the book Kahneman highlights the difficulties and challenges of thinking through risk. He addresses the many biases that play into how we behave and how we understand the world. He demonstrates the difficulties we have in thinking statistically and understanding complex probabilities. The takeaway from Kahneman in regard to the taboo tradeoff is that there is a level at which our efforts of safety are outpaced by the advantages we could attain by giving up some of our safety. It isn’t necessarily on each of us individually to try to decide exactly what level of risk society should accept. It is up to the experts who can engage their System 2 brain and evaluate their biases to help the rest of us better understand and conceptualize risk. We might be able to do some things understanding that there is a level of risk we take when engaging in society in 2020, but adequate precautions can still mitigate that risk, and still help us maintain a reasonable balance of safety tradeoffs while enjoying our lives.