What do video games say about you?

I think the way people play video games can tell you a lot about their personality. This thought first came to me in 1999, when I was sharing a flat in London with a friend of mine. To preserve his anonymity, I will not use his real name here. For the purposes of this story, l will refer to him simply as “Christ.”

Back then, Christ and I used to spend hours every day on the Playstation. We were particularly fond of the various Tomb Raider games, in which the player has to guide the protagonist, Lara Croft, through a series of ancient ruins and underground caverns. Along the way, Lara must fight various foes, and each blow they land on her takes away a certain amount of life. If her life indicator drops to zero, she dies, and the player must go back to the previous checkpoint and start again. Dotted around the game, however, are occasional medi-packs, which can be used to restore a certain amount of life to the wounded heroine.

My approach to playing the game was not particularly sophisticated. I would charge through the tunnels and chambers as fast as I could, hacking away at the enemies who confronted me, and picking up any medi-packs I spotted. If my life dropped to dangerously low levels, I’d use a medi-pack. Often, I would make it through to the next checkpoint by the skin of my teeth, with my life perilously low and no medi-packs left.

Christ took a very different approach. He would proceed very tentatively, exploring each section of tunnel, and every nook and cranny of each room. As a result, he managed to find a lot more medi-packs than I did. But he would never use them. If he took any damage, he’d let Lara die so he could go back to the last checkpoint, and try to make it all the way to the next one without losing any life. By the time he reached the end of the game, he had hundreds of un-used medi-packs, like a miser who reaches the end of his life with a pile of banknotes under his death-bed.

At the time, I realized that these different approaches to playing Tomb Raider said something about our different attitudes to risk. Christ was clearly much more risk averse than I was. But since then, I have come to think that our different playing styles reveal much more than just this. They reflect our whole attitude to life.

Take work for example. Christ and I are both writers, but we write very differently. I will write furiously for a few months, finish a book, and then not write again for a year or more. For a while, I live well on my advance, but then I plough it into some crazy project, or invest in a business that goes bust, and before long I’m poor again, and must return to my desk to write another book.

Christ, on the other hand, has written for several hours almost every day for the past ten years. In that time, he has steadily built up a small fortune. He is always talking about retiring the country, but he never seems to think he has enough money to take the plunge. Even now, with over a million pounds in the bank, and large royalty checks arriving every few months, he is still living in his run-down old house in Catford. Next year, he says, he will finally stop writing and leave London. But I’ve heard that before.

A few years ago, when another one of my hare-brained schemes had failed dismally, and I was crushed and broken, Christ invited me to stay with him in Catford to lick my wounds for a week or so. Each day, as I crawled out of my bed and made my way downstairs for breakfast, I would look up admiringly at the rows of colored paper pinned to the walls of the stairway. Each piece of paper had a list of milestones that Christ had set himself for each book, all dutifully ticked off as he had achieved them. These humble records spoke eloquently of his patient setting of goals, and the diligent accomplishment of each one. At the time, they felt like a silent rebuke of my way of living, and I even caught the occasional gleam of triumph in Christ’s eyes, as if my downtrodden air was the vindication he had always been seeking that his way of life was better than mine.

But now, a few years later, I’m back on my feet again, and I see things differently. Since that sojourn in Catford, I’ve written another book, made a pile of money, and squandered it on setting up a company that went nowhere. I’m poor again now, and have started writing yet another book – my eighth. But in those few years, I’ve also got married, moved to Ireland, and spent several terms abroad teaching at universities in Beirut and Guatemala. I’ve bought a house and redecorated it, created a website that has been visited by over 100,000 people, and taken one of my employers to the High Court (twice) and won (both times). In short, I’ve packed a lot in.

Christ, meanwhile, has done nothing except write. His bank account has grown steadily, but his house is still in the same dilapidated condition it was when he moved in ten years ago. He still hasn’t married his girlfriend, despite promising to do so every year for the past five years. And he still hasn’t moved to the country, though he does say he plans to do it next year. He’s had a heart attack, so I hope he does it soon. Otherwise, I fear he’ll arrive at those pearly gates with a bunch of medi-packs which by then will be completely useless.


How Car Safety Features are Reducing Risk Intelligence on the Road

Driving is one of the riskiest activities that people in the United States can possibly do. Each year, thousands die as a result of traffic incidents, so risk intelligence behind the wheel is a crucial. Cars have been mass-produced in the United States for over a century, but they have gone through significant changes since the times of Henry T Ford. Many of the developments of both cars and highway law enforcement have centered on safety. Crumple zones, seat belt laws, air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection systems, traction control systems, and speed limits, are all designed to save lives and make driving a less risky activity. However, despite all these safety measures, road accidents and fatalities have remained constant over the last few decades

Currently, over 200 million people hold a driving license in the United States, and annual road  fatalities has remained at about 40,000 a year for the last 20 years, despite many of the improvements in car and road safety mentioned above. Of course, the number of cars on the road increases each year, but this still doesn’t account for why accidents remain at the level they do, and some people suggest the very safety improvements themselves are to blame. It seems, the safer cars become, the more risks drivers are willing to take, an effect that has become known as Smeed’s law, which points out that increases in safety equipment and changes in traffic law are being cancelled out by changes these systems cause in driving behavior.

Commercial drivers

For commercial drivers, fatal accident rates are actually increasing. Commercial vehicles, such as truck and van drivers, are far more likely to be involved in road collisions than other drivers are, because of the amount of miles they drive each year. Furthermore, schedules and long working hours lead van and truck drivers to take more risks, but also, these types of vehicle are fitted with all sorts of safety devices.

Commercial vehicle accidents cost the US economy millions of dollars each year because of the loss of working hours, repairs to vehicles, and claims on commercial vehicle insurance. As a result, haulage companies invest huge amounts of time and money looking at ways to reduce the number of accidents that their drivers are involved in, from analyzing crash reports, to actual onboard monitoring of driving habits, but the safety of the modern commercial vehicle could be the biggest culprit. While companies that provide truck and private van insurance often offer discounts for vehicles with such safety equipment, the practice could be having the opposite effect as intended, with the insurance companies inadvertently encouraging accidents with this incentive.

Peltzman effect

The first person to theorize the negative effect of safety regulations was Sam Peltzman, and his theory has become known as the Peltzman effect. He suggested that people adjust their behavior to counteract improvements in safety, so when the government introduced seatbelt laws or car manufacturers installed air bags in their vehicles, people’s risk intelligence changed because they recognized the chance of serious injury in an accident had diminished. The consequence of this is that people drive faster and more recklessly. Furthermore, safety equipment in cars may cause even more risk to pedestrians and cyclists, who don’t benefit from such technology, while motorists are driving faster and more recklessly.

Attempts to measure this Peltzman effect have been limited, mainly because of the huge number of variables involved with the compiling of traffic data. However, one study conducted in 2007 used the number of crashes in NASCAR to discover if changes to the car’s safety were making racing drivers more reckless. Using track data from 1972 to 1993, the researchers discovered that as cars became safer, the drivers became more reckless, and while the number of injuries in NASCAR had reduced due to safety changes to the cars and tracks, the number of accidents had increased.

A similar effect has been noticed in a UK study regarding the use of cycling helmets. Helmets are not compulsory in the UK, and research by a leading traffic psychologist found cyclists that wore helmets were more likely to be involved in an accident with a vehicle than those that didn’t wear them. The reasoning was that drivers give more room and drive more carefully around cyclists they perceive are unprotected compared to cyclists that are wearing helmets.

The Peltzman effect has led to a common witticism among traffic psychologists that suggests if you placed a dagger on everybody’s steering wheel and point it at the driver then road accidents would be reduced to virtually zero as everybody would drive exceptionally carefully or risk serious injury from even the slightest bump.

Jessie Hardcastle is a freelance writer from England who specialises in finance and investment for a number of UK journals and blogs. With a growing following she has recently be focussing mainly on the problems close to her London home as Europe continues to falter in the face of political indecision.

Uncertainty intolerance on the trading floor

When markets are uncertain of the outcome of an important scheduled event, like an election or the release of an economic statistic, expected volatility increases. Therefore, the implied volatility, i.e., the estimate of future variance implied by an option’s price, is a sensitive barometer of the market’s collective uncertainty.

It is interesting to note, therefore, that a study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences in 2010 found that average cortisol levels in a group of 17 male traders in a midsized trading floor in the City of London correlate strongly with implied volatility. These traders experienced acutely raised cortisol in anticipation of higher volatility, which implies that they found uncertainty highly stressful. Psychologists would say that they have high levels of uncertainty intolerance.

I have a strong hunch that uncertainty intolerance tends to undermine risk intelligence by, for example, leading people to see things too starkly in black or white terms, and reacting to ambiguity with feelings of uneasiness, discomfort, dislike, anger, and anxiety that intrude on rational assessment. Getting a fix on your own degree of uncertainty tolerance is, therefore, an important step in improving your risk intelligence. It’s worrying, therefore, that in the questionnaires they filled in, the traders in this study displayed no awareness of of the rampant stress indicated by their cortisol measurements.  Not only were they freaked out by uncertainty, but they didn’t even know they were freaked out.