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Soulful Sundays: Safety Trap

"Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often." -Mae West

"Safety is an illusion, as is faith without temptation." -Ken Liu

My brother is a consummate rugby player. He picked up the sport during his early twenties, and over a decade later he continues to play at a competitive level. One day I asked him about head injuries on the field. First, he pointed out that the rules prohibit tackling above the shoulders and require that players wrap their arms around their opponent during a tackle. Second, he said that because no one is wearing a helmet, players are much more cautious about how they hit. Compare this to American football, which adopted plastic helmets and shoulder pads in 1949, and we see a different story. The extra level of perceived safety changed how football players tackled and used their heads. This resulted in an increase in concussions and an ensuing epidemic of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in these athletes. Depending on the arena, a preponderance of safety can lead to a much higher risk. We will explore this paradox in more detail today.

When we think we are the safest, we are actually the most vulnerable. There is a well-studied concept in the field of risk management called "risk compensation," in which a perceived increase in safety will lead people to take more risks, not fewer. For instance, as automobile companies have upped their vehicles' collision ratings, drivers have actually become more reckless. The increased vehicle safety standards have fortunately stabilized automobile fatalities for drivers, but reckless driving habits have markedly increased pedestrian fatalities. Relating this back to football, helmets have decreased catastrophic brain injuries, but have incentivized far more chronic low-level head trauma.

Risk tolerance is an important concept to grasp when we are talking about safety. There is no 100% safe activity. Period. Each day of our lives we stand the chance of injury or death. That is the price of being mortal. Acute risks may include electrocution, car accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, pharmaceutical overdoses, work-related accidents, food poisoning, water contamination, sudden cardiac arrest, infection, homicide, and suicide. Chronic risks are less obvious but statistically more deadly. Diabetes, obesity, smoking, excessive sedentarism or alcohol consumption, exposure to environmental toxins, and chronic stress all slowly chip away at our health. While the daily damage may seem safe and tolerable, the long-term effects can be catastrophic.

Each of us has a certain level of risk tolerance. When we feel safer in one area, we tend to take more risks in others. For example, having a financial safety net might lead to more frivolous spending, having good health insurance could result in less focus on preventative care, and regularly exercising may increase the tendency to overindulge dietarily. Our natural risk assessment system seeks homeostasis, and each individual has a nuanced approach to maintaining balance. Too little tolerance and we become stagnant. Too much and we become a statistic. What if there was a way to grow in tolerance without compromising safety? Would it be possible to become stronger in conjunction with (and because of) processing more stress? As is the case in many areas concerning human limitations, there is much debate over to what extent homeostatic setpoints can be modified.

I am a staunch believer in the ability of people to increase their risk tolerance in such a way that actually leads to both more safety and more reward. The way is through developing repeatable practices that increase skill acquisition while introducing enough random stress to disrupt homeostasis. In short, we should aim to practice useful skills methodically, including practicing spontaneous exposure to stress. The point is to improve our ability to handle risk, therefore increasing the known variables while reducing the unknown. (Note: I am using risk, stress, challenge, and danger all interchangeable to represent factors that could produce a net negative outcome if improperly addressed.)

When we perceive greater danger we tend to behave with greater care and attention. The rugby vs. football example is a case in point. The enemy could be lurking around the next corner, so to speak, so we tread more lightly. This mindset backfires, though, if we become too attached to perfect outcomes and fearful of failure. A balance is struck when we are confident enough in our ability to handle new challenges, yet not so complacent that we forget to remain engaged. Just the right amount of danger is a very good thing.

One of the most valuable lessons we can share with our children is how to fail. When we intercede any time that we (as parents) perceive risk or stressful situations, we limit their learning of important skills. I believe that children should be encouraged to take more risks early on, while they are firmly supported by their families and have few other responsibilities. Let your kids climb on things very early on. Let them fall regularly while walking. Even consider skipping the helmet once they can break their falls with their body. Even better, teach them how to fall first. This is why crawling needs to be mastered before walking. We should all learn to fail (and fall) more often. The resultant lessons in resilience are well worth the pain. True suffering is not becoming all that you could be for fear of loss or defeat. Safety is a trap. Seek growth instead.

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