Let's say someone proposes that to reduce deaths from overly chaotic airplane evacuations we ban passenger distractions during the most dangerous parts: takeoff and landing. How could we decide whether a ban like this would be worth it?

The argument for the ban is that the safe window for evacuating a plane can be very narrow, and evacuation could potentially go better if everyone were alert. For example, in the 2005 AF358 disaster the plane was completely on fire within ~3min of landing. While I think the benefit of a ban would likely be even smaller, let's assume that global adoption of a ban would cause an average of one fewer person a year to die.

On the other side, there's the cost of ~10min of boredom, for every passenger, on every flight. Instead of playing games, watching movies, or reading, people would mostly be talking, looking out the window, or staring off into space.

One common reaction is to say that on one side of this ledger we have someone's life, while on the other side we have a bit of boredom, so of course we should go with the policy that saves lives. Is there any amount of minor boredom that could equal a life? Many of us have a sense that there are some kinds of tradeoffs that you just shouldn't make, such as accepting deaths in exchange for reducing inconvenience.

If you take that perspective seriously, however, you'll have somewhat fewer deaths and unbearable levels of inconvenience. We could prohibit radios in cars because the music and adjustment can lead to collisions. Set the highway speed limit to 25mph. Ban cars entirely since they're more dangerous than walking and public transport. Require an N95 indoors at all times. Ban paternosters. Limit swimming pools to 3ft deep.

In our normal lives we make these kinds of tradeoff all the time, for example in deciding whether to drive somewhere: you have about a 1 in a million chance of dying ("one micromort") for each 175mi in a car. Thinking through this kind of more normal tradeoff can give better intuitions for approaching more unusual ones like airline policies; let's try that here.

There are ~9B passengers annually, so one fewer death would save the average passenger ~0.0001 micromort at a cost of ~10min of boredom. Is that a good trade? Imagine you were choosing between two potential ~10min car journeys: one being 6mi and one being 200ft shorter but you're not allowed to use your phone, read a book, listen to music, etc. I think nearly everyone would chose the extra 200ft, no?

At one micromort per 175mi, avoiding 200ft saves you ~0.0002 micromorts. This ~2x what we're positing travelers would save by making a similar trade on planes. If you wouldn't give up 10min of reading to save 200ft in a car, it's probably not worth doing to make flight safer either.

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Taking your numbers at face value, you'd have 1.5 billion passenger hours afflicted by the ban per life saved, or about 3000 lifetimes worth of hours.

Or: if people spent every waking minute of their lives under annoying regulatory requirments about as bad as this one with the same tradeoffs, the benefit would be extending the average lifespan from 77.28 years to 77.29 years.

I expect most people would demand more like +10 years of lifespan in return for that level of restriction, not +0.01 years. So the cost benefit is probably off by ~3 orders of magnitude.

I generally prefer to think about this kind of tradeoff by scaling up the benefits to 1 life and then concentrating the costs in 1 life, and seeing how the tradeoff looks. That might be idiosyncratic, but to me it's very natural to ask my gut how much lifespan I'd like to trade off for a few minutes of pain or inconvenience.

I like the shift from comparing ideals (far-thinking) to concrete trade-offs people already do (near-thinking). 

[W]e could prohibit radios in cars because the music and adjustment can lead to collisions. Set the highway speed limit to 25mph. Ban cars entirely since they're more dangerous than walking and public transport. Require an N95 indoors at all times.

People often give examples like these to motivate the need to think about trade-offs between quantity and quality of life, but it's not obvious to me that these would actually decrease deaths on net.

I hear from drivers that music helps keep their mind active and focussed while driving / makes them less likely to zone out. A lower highway speed limit would slow down the economy and limit the distribution of goods, which is important for saving lives (one obvious example is medical goods, but you can think of others). Banning cars even more so. N95s do make it a bit harder to communicate with people and are a bit uncomfortable, it's not at all obvious to me that that leads to 0 deaths (both due to direct reduction of communication that ends up being important for saving lives, and also reduction in social ties leading to increased stress leading to more heart attacks, and also gyms basically don't exist any more so people don't exercise as much).

Anyway I'm sure there are interventions that really would decrease deaths (banning sugary drinks is a plausible example) that present a trade-off in quality of life. But it's interesting to me that examples people tend to give don't obviously meet the mark.

Imagine you were choosing between two potential ~10min car journeys: one being 6mi and one being 200ft shorter but you're not allowed to use your phone, read a book, listen to music, etc. I think nearly everyone would chose the extra 200ft, no?

If you mean "as a passenger", then sure. Otherwise I would totally pick the first one (even without the 200ft discount), since you are very much not supposed to do these things while driving.

[-]dr_s4mo31

I mean, even so... it's ten minutes. I'd be bored on a 2 hour trip on which I'm unable to read. For ten minutes, I can manage.

Yes, as a passenger

[-]MikkW4mo2-1

On the other side, there's the cost of ~10min of boredom, for every passenger, on every flight. Instead of playing games, watching movies, or reading, people would mostly be talking, looking out the window, or staring off into space.

Tangent: I'm not completely sure that this is actually a cost and not an unintended benefit

It certainly violates revealed preference

That statement of fact is indeed true. Would you mind saying more about your thoughts regarding it? There seems to be an unstated implication that this is bad. There is a part of me that agrees with that implication, but there are also parts of me that want to say "so what? that's irrelevant". (I feel ⌞explaining what the second set of shards is pointing to, would take more time and energy to write up than I am prepared to take right now⌝)

I'm coming from a starting place of assuming that if a bunch of people are doing X and would loudly protest if you told them to stop doing X, then preventing them from doing X is a cost to them. This assumption can be overruled with sufficient evidence that preventing them from doing X actually helps them, but I don't see that here?

then preventing them from doing X is a cost to them

The cost need not be anything to do with X, but about being told not to do X. People get pissed off at interfering jobsworths.