Government-funded social marketing campaigns are very common in New Zealand. We get a whole of TV ads telling us not to drink and drive, smoke, or behave like a munter. Many see this as an effort to educate the public and allow them to make informed choices. I, and other libertarians, might object to coercive taxation paying for these ads, but surely they are producing some good by empowering individual choice, right? Well, no. They are generally not bringing the public’s perception closer to reality, but pushing it further away.
Take smoking. It may or may not be true that prior to the extensive research into the health effects of smoking carried out in the latter half of the twentieth century, most people underestimated the dangers of tobacco. In any case, it is not true today. With all the propaganda we’ve been exposed to over the years, it would take a heroic feat of wilful ignorance to be unaware of the health risks of smoking.
In fact, it seems that people tend to overestimate the risks of smoking. Kip Viscusi has shown that both smokers and non-smokers overestimate the risk of contracting lung cancer due to smoking. He concludes that if risk perceptions were unbiased (i.e. if people were on average making fully informed decisions), the number of smokers would increase by 7.5% This overestimation of risk is greater for younger people, presumably reflecting their more complete indoctrination
There seem to be similar trends for many other activities we are urged not to do. A study conducted in Quebec, for example, found that people were more likely to overestimate than underestimate the likelihood of crashing, being injured, and getting caught while driving drunk.
The scaremongering over sexually transmitted disease has likely left you unduly frightened as well. American college students overestimate the risk of HIV transmission by a factor of 10 or more, and perceived risk exceeds actual risk even in relatively high-risk countries such as Malawi.
The obvious message of all this: if you’ve considered the pros and cons and remain unsure whether to have a ciggie, go bareback, or drive home from the pub – go ahead and do it. It’s more likely that you’re wrongly erring on the side of caution due to biased risk perceptions than it is you’re being reckless. Of course, you should take in account the risks you’re imposing on others, but if you’ve done that and your intuitive cost-benefit analysis of behaviour you’ve been repeatedly told not to engage in comes out roughly even, take the riskier option. You’ll have more fun and you’ll probably be fine.