Does the perception of security or safety ever match the reality of security or safety? How about the perception of risk? We worry about the wrong things; paying entirely too much attention to risks that are in reality minor, and not enough attention to the major risks in our lives. We seem to be incapable of correctly assessing the magnitude of different risks consistently.
This is likely due, in part, to our individual experiences in life which govern our own individual perceptions, however, a lot of this can be chalked up to bad (even if well intended) or incomplete information. Yet there are some general pathologies that seem to repeat in human behaviour over and over again.
What follows is a list taken from the book: Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You by David Ropeik that I found most interesting. Much of it rings true in what we see in our typical day to day life.
How does this compare with your experiences and observations?
- Most people are more afraid of risks that are new than those they’ve lived with for a while. In the summer of 1999, New Yorkers were extremely afraid of West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne infection that had never been seen in the United States. By the summer of 2001, though the virus continued to show up and make a few people sick, the fear had abated. The risk was still there, but New Yorkers had lived with it for a while. Their familiarity with it helped them see it differently.
- Most people are less afraid of risks that are natural than those that are human-made. Many people are more afraid of radiation from nuclear waste, or cell phones, than they are of radiation from the sun, a far greater risk.
- Most people are less afraid of a risk they choose to take than of a risk imposed on them. Smokers are less afraid of smoking than they are of asbestos and other indoor air pollution in their workplace, which is something over which they have little choice.
- Most people are less afraid of risks if the risk also confers some benefits they want. People risk injury or death in an earthquake by living in San Francisco or Los Angeles because they like those areas, or they can find work there.
- Most people are more afraid of risks that can kill them in particularly awful ways, like being eaten by a shark, than they are of the risk of dying in less awful ways, like heart disease–the leading killer in America.
- Most people are less afraid of a risk they feel they have some control over, like driving, and more afraid of a risk they don’t control, like flying, or sitting in the passenger seat while somebody else drives.
- Most people are less afraid of risks that come from places, people, corporations, or governments they trust, and more afraid if the risk comes from a source they don’t trust. Imagine being offered two glasses of clear liquid. You have to drink one. One comes from Oprah Winfrey. The other comes from a chemical company. Most people would choose Oprah’s, even though they have no facts at all about what’s in either glass.
- We are more afraid of risks that we are more aware of and less afraid of risks that we are less aware of. In the fall of 2001, awareness of terrorism was so high that fear was rampant, while fear of street crime and global climate change and other risks was low, not because those risks were gone, but because awareness was down.
- We are much more afraid of risks when uncertainty is high, and less afraid when we know more, which explains why we meet many new technologies with high initial concern.
- Adults are much more afraid of risks to their children than risks to themselves. Most people are more afraid of asbestos in their kids’ school than asbestos in their own workplace.
- You will generally be more afraid of a risk that could directly affect you than a risk that threatens others. U.S. citizens were less afraid of terrorism before September 11, 2001, because up till then the Americans who had been the targets of terrorist attacks were almost always overseas. But suddenly on September 11, the risk became personal. When that happens, fear goes up, even though the statistical reality of the risk may still be very low.
Have you ever given much thought to your perception of risk versus reality? It can be eye-opening…and remarkably liberating if you give it some thought.