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It struck me that the phrase "better safe than sorry" is somewhat illogical, or perhaps more accurately, it is so logical and obvious that it seems to carry no meaning at all.

My problem with this phrase is that is compares two things (being safe, and being sorry), one of which is obviously good, while the other is obviously bad. Clearly, being safe is better than the "base state", which in turn is better than being sorry. This is in contrast with another common phrase "prevention is better than cure", in which both prevention and cure presumably carry some cost, and the costs are compared in a very logical manner.

Could someone please explain why "better safe than sorry" makes sense? (assuming that it does)

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IF you are deciding whether to take some action that may or may not be of any consequence where taking the action can provide an increased level of insurance against possible misfortune but the possibility of misfortune is low, such that it is unlikely that the insurance is really required, you might apply the adage "better safe than sorry." In others words, it's better to take the action and know you'll be safe in case misfortune occurs, than to have it occur and be sorry and wish you had. –  Jim Mar 10 at 19:34
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I don't think the expression 'better safe than sorry' states anything of philosophical import. It is merely a confirmatory, remark which solidifies an argument for a particular course. Your raising it in this way rather reminds me of the university which opened up a philosophy department for the first time. On the morning the new professor arrived he passed the Professor of Mathematics in the corridor who said 'Good morning', to which the philosopher replied 'kindly define your terms!'. –  WS2 Mar 10 at 19:40
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When I was younger I thought it meant that it was better to be safe and sorry than to just be sorry (which is completely wrong). Someone told me then that it meant it's better to operate knowing that the end result is safe than to do something with an unknown or bad end result that you regret later. But as a kid it just seemed so obvious that you would rather do something that would give a good/safe result over a bad/sorry result that I just didn't understand it. Of course it's better to be safe than sorry, right? It makes sense, but it's ultimately kind of dumb. –  Ice-9 Mar 10 at 19:49
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It is not clear that being safe is better, since to be safe one has to forgo dangerous things and those things often have benefits and advantages. Those may or may not outweigh the safety benefit. –  David Schwartz Mar 11 at 9:48
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You state that this expression is illogical and then go on to explain, using logic, that "safe" is better than "sorry". Your question is illogical. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Mar 11 at 16:20

8 Answers 8

up vote 30 down vote accepted

This is like "it's better to buy insurance and not need it (than it is to not have insurance and need it)."

In this phrase, being safe requires effort to be in that condition, but the effort is small compared to what loss might occur if that effort weren't made.

Examples are:

It's better to check behind your car every time you back out of your driveway, even if you don't have children or pets.

It's better to always check if the gun is loaded, even if you don't have bullets.

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Yep. Basically “better safe than sorry” means “the cost of doing something that turns out to be unnecessary is lower than the cost of failing to have done it if it turns out to have been necessary”. –  Jon Purdy Mar 10 at 20:15
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@JonPurdy Right, but blindly following this rule leads to bad decisions. Say some action has a 10% chance of happening. If it happens, it will cost you $10. However it costs $5 to pro-actively prevent it. This was not worth while insurance. –  Cruncher Mar 10 at 20:50
    
not really. It's nowhere assumed the effort "to be safe" is less than what you'd put in otherwise. E.g. the radical AGW movement wants us to deinstrialise the entire planet and go back to living in stone age conditions just in case our industrial society has negative side effects. They claim too "it's better to be safe than sorry" yet they demand a massive effort with serious negative consequences when the consequences of doing nothing are almost certainly far less severe. –  jwenting Mar 11 at 10:38
    
@jwenting, your example is a bit hyperbolic: "better safe than sorry" is not what a "radical" would say. A "reasonable" proponent of AGW might say "better safe than sorry", but then again, they aren't trying to make us all go back to the stone age. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Mar 11 at 13:17
    
It's better than what, Jim? It's incorrect English to create a comparison that doesn't compare two or more things. –  snot waffle Mar 11 at 21:13

This axiom is not a comparison between safe and sorry. It is a reminder, born out of bitter experience, that adverse situations will occur, and being prepared for when they do is better than the alternative.

Safety always takes time and effort that many see as a waste. If an adverse action occurs infrequently, it is all-too-human to assume that just because it hasn't happened recently, it will not happen.

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+1 Regarding the second point, when I was younger I often viewed the expression antagonistically, as in "No, it's not always better to be safe than sorry, because the probability weighted cost of being safe outweighs the benefit of not being sorry." –  Michael Mar 11 at 3:57

My understanding of the phrase is that it is used in a situation which has some significant probability of becoming adverse without proper attention or prevention. It's an argument in favor of taking preventative action. The saying indicates that one would be wise to take appropriate action to make sure that undesirable state doesn't come about.

better [to take the time/effort do this and ensure you are] safe than [to not do this and possibly become] sorry.

It's typically a suggestion, and more risk-prone folks may choose not to heed it and still be okay. For example:

I'm going to ride my motorcycle without a helmet because I enjoy it much more that way, and there's only a small likelihood that I'll get into an accident. <--- This person incurs a higher risk of death, but enjoys the ride more

I would rather wear my helmet when I ride and have a greater chance of surviving if I do get into an accident. <--- This person forgoes the better feeling for extra protection against a deadly outcome

You could apply this to many situations: safe sex, pop quizzes, etc

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As you've explained in your question, "better safe than sorry" is not a comparison between two things someone has to choose between, because if it was it would be incredibly one-sided. Everyone agrees that it is better to be safe than sorry. Instead, it's an explanation, motive, or argument for doing something -- because in the future, we want to be safe rather than regretting that we didn't do something else or take some extra step.

In use, it's a short way of saying the much less convincing "You/I might end up regretting it if you/I don't do this." This phrase is mostly valid when the extra step has no risks, but the person you are telling the phrase to believes that the extra step is unnecessary, paranoid, or just overkill.

Using this phrase might be analogous to:

Me: Why are you eating an apple?

You: Humans get hungry.

I already knew that humans get hungry, but you've still managed to communicate some new information for me (that you were hungry) by responding that way.

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You had me until your analogy. Then, huh?!? –  David M Mar 11 at 0:20
    
@DavidM You don't think it works? If I ask you "Why are you using so many nails?" and you reply "Better safe than sorry", you're saying that the reason you're doing something is a statement/fact that we both already agree on. –  Jeremy Mar 11 at 17:01
    
That works, but not for the same reason. It's not a statement of mutually understood fact. It's a statement of prevention vs repair. –  David M Mar 11 at 17:48
    
I agree with @DavidM . Use analogy instead - Child: Why are we turning around and going all the way back home? Adult: Because I just can't remember if I turned the oven off. It's better to spend 15 minutes and (be safe) than to lose everything to a house fire , and feel (sorry) for the loss since we could have prevented it but were too lazy to return and check. –  NickNo Mar 11 at 21:16
    
@NickNo That's not an analogy, it's just a verbose version of the original. The point of the analogy is to show how it sometimes makes sense to make a statement that is "so logical and obvious that it seems to carry no meaning at all" (as per the OP). –  nmclean Mar 12 at 12:13

The statement is not as obvious at it might seem and it is trying to combat an inbuilt psychological resistance to facing harsh or unpleasant realities.

I think that there are an astonishing amount of accidents with high human cost that are caused by the brain's in-built forgetfulness or blindness to risk. In order to keep us happy and sane, our brains forget or ignore a lot of things that if we stop and think about them would make us unhappy. You only have to see the news to see how many accidents are caused that could easily have been prevented, but occur because one person thought that 'it wouldn't happen to them'.

Therefore the phrase is designed to instruct us to combat that in-built resistance with an always present compensation to be 'safe' and it explains that we should because the consequences (although probably rare) might make us very sorry.

There are a lot of people out there who have injured or killed other people through negligence because they didn't exercise appropriate caution. They live their lives always knowing that they should have been more cautious and this phrase is simple and could save a lot of sorrow if remembered.

Obviously this phrase applies to many less important issues, but the core message is 'always remember that something can go wrong that you would regret'. Whether remembering it saves a life or just makes you stop to fill up the car with fuel earlier, it helps us remember that we need to show extra caution because our brains are wired to be less cautious than we should be.

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It struck me that the phrase "better safe than sorry" is [...] so logical and obvious [...]

You're quite right.

Better safe than sorry

The idiom's meaning can be explained by an expansion on the words themselves. I would more didactically put it:

It is better to be safe by taking a more prudent course of action than to take the riskier course of action and be sorry for it when facing its consequences.

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The logic is that most people have loss-averse utility functions, as demonstrated by Tversky and Kahneman. This is because there is an asymmetric emotional reinforcement incurred when comparing a loss of magnitude X with a gain of magnitude X. To maximise expected utility across all future states of the world, given by the objective function {argmax E[U(w)]}, agents will therefore seek a solution E[w] < 0; i.e., being 'safe' instead of 'sorry'. To justify otherwise, human agents need a mass function of future reinforcement whose integral from infinity to zero is more than half of the total area under the density (note that I refer to monetary reinforcement instead of the emotional reinforcement that has already been pushed through function U(.)).

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It is about reminding someone to consider something that they might otherwise overlook: to be "safe" by choosing to take some extra precaution is a choice you can make. If you don't, the possibility of being "sorry" because something that you didn't choose "happens to you", and you cannot undo that. I think it is about trying to have some control over what you can, in a world where we cannot control everything. This is sensible. The two possibilities are not equal, because you either take action, or do not. "Prevention is better than cure" amounts to the same thing: prevention is an action, doing nothing is not.

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