Why We Suck at Risk Assessment

Note: This poorly written post is currently slated for heavy revision or deletion. Read at your own risk.

 

It is no secret that we suck at risk assessment.  We make bad decisions every day, individually and collectively, based on bad risk assessment.

For example, someone might smoke and chomp on a burger while talking on his cell phone while driving to the Santa Cruz beach, only to decide not to enter the water because of this report he saw last night about deadly box jellyfish.

Never mind the fact that he was thousands of times more likely to die from the drive over than getting hit by lightning.  Or the fact that in reality box jellyfish rarely kill.  Or the fact that box jellyfish aren’t even found in Santa Cruz.

Another example is that Americans are spending over a trillion fighting wars far away, at a cost of close to $10,000 per household, to “fight terrorism”.  If the goal is to save lives of Americans, it would be about the worst return on investment in the history of mankind.  It’s only slightly better than burning $100 bills in the fireplace to keep the house warm.

Why is it then, that we suck at risk assessment?

Simply put, our brains are not ready yet.

Most animals have a fight-or-flight response, which is arguably the most important decision for survival, and it is done almost instantly, based on the immediate circumstances.  There is no time for calculation of long term consequences.  You flatten the squirrel and run from the tiger.  It is raw emotion and reflexes.

Over time, our brains have evolved to have a different type of decision process, which is more nuanced and calculated.  It takes into account future rewards and consequences.  This ability to predict events and recognize patterns (separate blog on this) and make decisions based on them is what separates humans from the beasts.  It’s what enables people to slow play or bluff at a poker hand.  This decision process is more about reasoning and logic.

Clearly when it comes to major decisions, the latter type is more advantageous.  However oftentimes the immediate fight-or-flight part of the brain gets in the way of our decision process, leading to poor risk assessments and decisions.  It’s like calling an all-in bet with nothing simply out of anger.

My theory is that the reasoning part of the brain has not existed long enough to overcome the primal impulses of the brain.  Our brains have not caught up to the rapid technological development and incredible amount of information that is being conveyed.  In the past what was local and relevant information, today can spread globally in the blink of an eye, where it is often not relevant.

There is no shortage of risk assessments being biased by the fight-or-flight response:

Spectacular, unusual, gruesome and unfamiliar risks are over-emphasized.  After 9/11 people were paranoid of flying, especially if there were people dressed in Muslim garb on board.  A news report of someone decapitated by a tire strip shot through the windshield from a blown tire from the truck in front will make you stay away from trucks.

Recent exposure will increase emphasis, while long term risks are deemphasized.  If you see someone in Muslim garb on a plane now, are you as afraid as you were the days after 9/11?  In the other example, a month later, you will be fearlessly tailgating that truck.  Yet the risk has not changed at all, only they way it is perceived.

Perceived control over a situation, or a risk voluntarily taken, or possible benefit from the risk will also distort the assessment of the risk.  One feels more secure driving (in control) than flying or being driven (not in control).  A smoker/drinker/drug user will subconsciously underestimate the risk for the reward.  A gambler will go for a long shot even if the odds are extremely bad (think lottery).

A higher risk is perceived for things that are not understood clearly or easily, and by extension, a man-made item carries a higher risk than a naturally occurring one.  To a layperson it is not obvious how a microwave oven works, and thus it might seem riskier than a stove top, which is actually far more dangerous.  A burning plastic bag invokes more fear than say, an all natural and 100% organic death cap mushroom, ricin, or a cute Komodo Dragon.  The sun emits radiation in a spectrum and an intensity that in terms of danger, is several orders of magnitude higher than say, gluing cell phones all over your head and sleeping in a cell phone base station next to a high voltage power line.

Another influence is anecdotes, and somewhat associated, immediately available or vivid memories.  If one reads multiple “personal accounts” of a product on the web that allegedly has caused harm, he will likely think the product carries more risk than it actually does.  If you’re in the Vatican City and all you hear and read is that the condom is a product of the devil, you’d think twice about wearing that raincoat, before you bless the lord and plunge forward.  If you see pictures of a flattened human jigsaw puzzle, you’d be more careful crossing the street.  The mind is a strange thing; it remembers vivid details of a scene and snippets of information, while forgetting where it came from and even if the information is correct or not.  You don’t forget a flattened human jigsaw puzzle easily, but you will likely over time, forget where you first saw it.

Unscrupulous marketers and politicians exploit this quite readily.  After all, it’s an easy way to make a buck, and even easier way to obtain power.

The products that are out there range from small devices like so-called EMF shields to large establishments like doomsday shelters and underground condos.  Of course in the event that nuclear annihilation actually occurs, it’s unknown how one is supposed to drive hours into the wilderness to get to that shelter without dying first.  However, dubious products would be the topic of another blog and I won’t elaborate here.

Politicians use the trick all the time, trumpeting issues from “war on terror”, “war on drugs” to “secure the border”, just to name a few.  Climate change is another issue that gets raised often but there is some legitimate debate on that so that is partly justified.  The PATRIOT act, one of the worst acts ever written in history, was passed in record time by Congress, without even being actually studied, based on irrational fear and poor risk assessment.

People would not be people without emotion, and it is an integral part of humanity.  It is what separates us as a species.  It also enables us to live, love, enjoy, and experience life to its fullest.  But when it comes to assessing risk and making serious decisions with long term implications, the best decision is always from a careful analysis of the best available information.

Special thanks to David Ropeik and George Gray, as some material is blatantly pilfered from their book “Risk”.  Please don’t sue me.

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