Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Perceived safety increases risk-taking

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In many senses, life is a series of risk/reward calculations. Choosing which school to attend, buying a house, and choosing a spouse are all risky endeavors. According to the Peltzman effect, also known as risk compensation, people have a tendency to take greater risks when perceived safety increases.

I’m sure this conclusion comes as no surprise to you. Toddlers learning to walk soon start to run, or go down stairs, with the expected results. Teen drivers (particularly teen boys) get comfortable behind the wheel and dart off in a burst of testosterone, occasionally ending up in dire circumstances. This phenomenon was very common the Formula 2 racing series. Formula 2 is a development series for the global F1 competition, which is viewed as the pinnacle of motor racing. The problem is that the Formula 2 series was plagued with multiple accidents resulting from brash moves made by the young drivers. The reason? Analysts, including current F1 drivers, argued that Formula 2 racers were overly aggressive because their cars are so safe. Romain Grosjean, a Formula 2 driver who now competes for the Renault F1 team, was fined several times and sat out for an F1 race after being at fault in repeated incidents following his promotion.

Investors make similar risk/reward calculations. Wall Street investment bankers often take significant risks because their compensation schemes reward short-term success far more than they punish failure. Why would they take such risks? Because it’s part of their overall strategy. In the Wharton School’s corporate finance MOOC I’m taking on Coursera, Professor Franklin Allen argues that one’s sense of risk is inverted when you think of investing in a portfolio of stocks rather than in a single stock. For example, imagine that you buy stock in an oil company that finds oil in 1 out of 20 wells, and each producing well returns $100. You have a hit rate of 5% which, multiplied by the return of a good well, yields an expected value of $5. Now imagine that you have a separate investment in a research company that has a 1 in 50 chance of returning $250, otherwise gaining you nothing. This investment has a similar expected value to the previous example, because 2% (1 in 50) of $250 is $5.

Which of the two investments is less risky? If you look at the expected values, they’re equally risky. However, Professor Allen argues that, when considered as part of a portfolio, the latter investment is less risky because of its higher potential return. The crux of the argument is that a diversified portfolio with numerous independent risks will tend to have a higher return than a collection of pedestrian investments with relatively low risk. The end result is safety in numbers. Just as a fair coin flipped 1,000 times will tend to show heads in about 50% of the trials, investments with independent risks will tend to earn out at their expected rate, assuming you adjudged the risks correctly in the first place. Statistics on investment return since the year 1900 bear out his argument.

Improvisers can and should take risks to make great scenes. We can do it without fear because we know our fellow players will be there to make what we say and do the right thing. Similarly, businesses can take risks as part of a diversified portfolio of ideas. Just as you wouldn’t invest in a single stock such as, I don’t know…Enron, you shouldn’t discourage experimentation and risk. That said, you must understand that risks taken within a scene or business are dependent, not independent. There’s only so much we can do to fix things if you go too far overboard. If you can’t spread out your risk, you must moderate it to be successful.

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