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How to Assess Risk

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

At a time when science was telling us to keep a safe distance from one another, beaches in Florida were crowded with frolicking vacationers. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, these people made bad evaluations of risk. Why?

Dangers of Instant Reward

“If I get corona, I get corona. I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” This nugget of wisdom came from an apple-cheeked young man interviewed by NBC News on Clearwater Beach, Florida. A suitable response might be, “Make the most of the party sunshine because it might be your last one.”

His la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you attitude is fairly easy to explain; the possibility of short-term pleasure swamps the possibility of a long-term downside. He’s young and, like many in his age group, doesn’t bother himself about an abstract future that might not affect him.

This immediate reward balanced against something vague tomorrow afflicts many of us:

  • “I’ve only had a few drinks; I’m perfectly safe to drive.”
  • “I’ll put another $100 into this machine; I’m sure it’s about to pay out big time.”
  • “Yes, I heard the warning lightning warning siren, but let’s finish the round anyway.”

Emotional decisions such as these that contradict rational evaluations of risk lead to a whole whack of trouble.

Decision Making and the Brain

The amygdala is a primitive part of the brain and it sits just above the stem. This nifty cluster of nuclei is where such things as threats are processed. If the amygdala senses danger it signals the body to release adrenaline which triggers the fight-or-flight response. This is very useful if you are a gazelle and a hungry lion turns up.

However, in relatively recent evolutionary terms, humans have developed the neocortex; a much more complex part of the brain that deals with reasoning, sensory perception, language, and conscious thought. The neocortex analyzes and evaluates information but its decisions take longer than the amygdala; the result is a conflict between the two parts of the brain.

The snag is that it’s difficult for the neocortex to overrule the amygdala. Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman explains how the quarrel between the amygdala (System 1) and the neocortex (System 2) plays out. “The operations of System 1 are typically fast, automatic, effortless, associative, implicit (not available to introspection) and often emotionally charged; they are also governed by habit and therefore difficult to control or modify.

“The operations of System 2 are slower, serial, effortful, more likely to be consciously monitored and deliberately controlled; they are also relatively flexible and potentially rule governed.”

Psychologist Dr. John Grohol explains that System 1 evolved for a world that no longer exists: “Over time, the risks changed from natural predators and dangers in the wild to less obvious risks in a mechanical and technologically-driven world. Our brains aren’t naturally wired to take into account these new man-made risks, and so the brain engages in a faulty and biased risk assessment.”

“I’ll get the perfect selfie of me on the lip of the Grand Canyon that will get tons of likes on Facebook; just one step backwards for the perfect framing and, aaargh.”

The Media Are at Fault

The U.S. National Safety Council puts the odds of dying in a plane crash at one in 9,821 and the odds of dying in a car crash at one in 114. However, many people are nervous about flying yet don’t bat an eye at asking Aunt Hazel to drive them to the airport.

Anytime there’s a commercial airline crash the media are all over it with blanket coverage. There’s video of the smoldering wreckage and weeping friends and relatives at airports. The talking heads come on the screen offering speculations about how the disaster occurred long before such conclusions can reasonably be drawn. The coverage can drag on for several days, erroneously planting in the minds of viewers that they ought to be afraid of flying.

Meanwhile, poor diet and failure to exercise will lead to the deaths of far more people over the period of the plane crash coverage, but there will not be a peep about this from the national media.

So, our memories retain the big event and its multiple fatalities, causing us to vastly overestimate the risk. At the same time, the individual deaths caused by obesity-related heart attacks don’t register, unless the victim is a loved one, causing us to horribly underestimate the risk.

“We are hard-wired to use our emotions more than reason all the time, but especially when it comes to keeping ourselves safe

Author of How Risky Is it Really? David Ropeik

Using Math to Assess Good Risk

Matching a risk against a reward often involves some sort of mathematical calculation, and, except for a lucky few, most of us are inept in the field.

Here’s The Big Think in 2018: “A recent national survey from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 82 percent of adults couldn’t determine the cost of carpeting when given its dimensions and price per square yard.”

A report from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that 29 percent of Americans had numeracy skills that were in the lowest level of competency.

Such universally poor abilities to handle numbers are why there are lotteries and casinos.

Americans spent $72 billion on lottery tickets in 2017.

The emotional part of our brain says “Somebody has to win, so why not me?” That’s a valid question, but not realistic when the odds are considered.

Winning one of the major U.S. lotteries carries odds of roughly 300 million to one against. The rational side of our brains ought to ask how can my family better profit from the $570 spent on the very outside chance of hitting the jackpot?

The Bad Risk Assessment Trap

German professor Gerd Gigerenzer has shown how the emotion-driven assessment of risk can lead to negative consequences.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 took the lives of 2,996 people. In the months following the atrocity, airline travel in the United States dropped by between 12 percent and 20 percent, while the amount of road traffic increased. The valid assumption is that people chose to drive rather than fly.

Prof. Gigerenzer, who specializes in risk management, has estimated that, in the year after 9/11, 1,595 Americans died in car accidents as a result of the increase in road travel.

The Guardian reports that “Gigerenzer ascribed the extra deaths to people’s poor understanding of danger. ‘People jump from the frying pan into the fire.’ ”

Bonus Factoids

Some real probabilities; what are the chances of:

  • Being dealt a royal flush―one in 650,000
  • Finding a four-leaf clover―one in 100,000
  • Being declared a saint―one in 20 million
  • Finding a pearl in an oyster―one in 12,000
  • Being struck by lightning each year―one in 300,000
  • Being born―one in 400 trillion
  • Attending a hospital emergency room because of a golf cart injury― one in 22,355
  • Donald Trump giving up lying―one in infinity

Sources

  • “Florida Governor Refuses to Shut Down Beaches Amid Spread of Coronavirus.” Doha Madani, NBC News, March 17, 2020.
  • “Why the Human Brain Is a Poor Judge of Risk.” Bruce Schneier, Wired, March 22, 2007.
  • “What Are the Odds of Dying From …?” National Safety Council, undated.
  • “Dying for the Ultimate Selfie: We’re Really Bad at Accurately Assessing Risk.” John M. Grohol, Psy.D., psychcentral.com, May 13, 2019.
  • “Why We’re Awful at Assessing Risk.” Morgan Housel, USA Today, March 17, 2014.
  • “Why America Is Bad at Math.” Mike Colagrossi, The Big Think, September 18, 2018.
  • “September 11’s Indirect Toll: Road Deaths Linked to Fearful Flyers.” James Ball, The Guardian, September 5, 2011.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on May 06, 2020:

This article is strangely comforting. The older I get, the more I use a rational risk assessment for even relatively minor decisions; well, like I refuse to make contact with the public during this pandemic crisis. I'm at-risk and don't want to fight the odds for a virus we know little about.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 02, 2020:

Were it within my power to do so I would certainly beatify you. Saint Happy has a nice ring to it.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on April 01, 2020:

"Being declared a saint―one in 20 million" - So, I have some chances is what You're saying? Haha!!

Jokes aside, this is a very interesting topic pour moi: risk-taking and/or risk assesment because it immensily affects our lives. I have become more aware of this as more and more people have brought-up to me the concerns they have when I go camping alone, many times for days on end and far from any other humans. "Alone, in the forest? Aren't You afraid?" And I tell them that I am more concerned walking some streets in Toronto than I am in the forest. I'm experienced and I go prepared.

The level of risk-taking differs from person to person. So, take this pandemic: as an introverted lone wolf, with no partners, no dependants, decent health and good hygene practices, why should I be afraid, or even concerned? I'm not but I have changed my habits for others. So,I do not infect others and put them at risk but You see, I personally have no concerns about this virus.

Risk has to be measured in regard to one's Intent. If one's Intent now is to help others then, our risk assessment has to correlate to "others' Intent". If Intent remains only carring about one's ego then, we go to the beach and party, or whatever.

Thank You for the article. Very interesting topic. All the best! Stay safe.

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