Risk and You

By Donovan Makus

“As soon as there is life there is danger.” These words, spoken by the famed writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, marked the beginning of a course I am currently finishing, ENSC 415 (Risk Assessment), also marking a key understanding we all can apply to ourselves. Risk isn’t just a board game collecting dust on the shelf; we’re all alive, even if our blood is mainly caffeine and cortisol by this point, and we all encounter risks in our everyday life. Understanding risk, especially our personal views on risk, is not absolutely necessary. We can go through life perfectly fine without this sort of contemplation but when we do examine it, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

The risk of a world-changing asteroid coming at us in our lifetime is 1 in 10,000. Most sane people are not particularly concerned this will happen, which shows one of the first and greatest problems of risk–our perception doesn’t match reality. Asteroid impacts are not particularly risky but in general, many of us regularly engage in one activity or another that kills ~2000 Canadians per year and injures around ~160,000. If this all took place simultaneously at around 1:00 on a Monday in Toronto, there would be widespread outrage, mourning, and calls for change, but due to the chronic nature, spread out over the year, we don’t fully appreciate the risk of this activity we call “Driving.” Many people drive because we see the benefits of driving as greater than potential harm; our perception matters. A foremost expert in the field of risk, Dr. Peter Sandman, suggested that the technically inclined; those assessing risk, misunderstand risk by framing it only in terms of hazard, which is how likely something is to occur multiplied by the consequences if it does happen. While there is a benefit to conceptualizing risk in such a clinical matter it ignores the human factor. Instead, he suggests that Risk = hazard + outrage, where outrage is shaped by a grand total of 29 factors. These make intuitive sense; we’re more likely to accept voluntary risks that are familiar and that we see as fair. Thousands of people dying of chronic disease seems less risky than hundreds in a highly memorable catastrophic disaster. Together these issues of perception create two large issues; over- and underestimating risk.

I sometimes joke that assignments, midterms, and work issues, are “Future Me” problems, something I can’t be alone in thinking. “Who wants to live forever” go the lyrics of many songs, so why worry about tomorrow? Much like a midterm next week is at the bottom of the to-do list, while a project this week is at the top, we prioritize risks. However, this kind of thinking helps explain why we fail to properly understand chronic risks. Take skin cancer. Cancer is one of those risks people generally fear and avoid if they can help it, yet how many of us actually consistently apply sunscreen before going outside? I don’t, and I’m in the majority. According to the American Center for Disease Control, only 14.3% of men, and 29.9% of women actually take these preventative measures. This is related to the idea of natural vs. artificial risks. Take natural background radiation or radon, a colorless, scentless gas that has been linked to cancer. In New Jersey, radon levels are naturally high in a large number of homes, levels that would cause concern were they from industrial activity. However, due to their natural source, few New Jerseyans take radon seriously. Risk education is one role governments try to take seriously, through graphic ads on cigarette packaging, to vivid dramatizations of car crashes caused by texting in TV ad spots, yet we remain complacent about the long-term risks associated with seemingly routine facts of life such as sleep deprivation.       

While underestimating some risks may lead us to make poor decisions, the opposite issue can also cause problems. Take, for instance, the risks associated with modern nuclear power. Nuclear power generation does involve some element of risk, as does any human activity, but the risk for both is quite small in terms of actual hazard, while the benefits are quite high. Yet, returning to Sandman’s typology of Risk = hazard + outrage, the risk is seen as higher for both in the general population than it is among the technically minded experts, a gap of around 20% points. Outrage over risk may lead to flawed policy, as governments reactively cater to public desire to “do something” with poor allocation of funding, leading to activities with greater risks losing potential funding. The risk of pollution in our backyard is seen as greater than global climate change, yet only one of these affects every living creature on the planet. However, polling has consistently shown that people consider the pollution in their yard a more important issue than issues affecting everyone. While underestimating risk is a big issue, we shouldn’t ignore the impact of over-estimating risk.

So what does this all mean? Calculating risk may be a pleasant career choice for certain types of people, but it also shapes our own decision making. We don’t need to go through life with a risk assessment table for every decision, nor do we need to formally have a portion of our decision-making process labelled “risk assessment,” but we should still more actively consider risks when making decisions. Should I stay up late tonight with friends, or should I go home early and finish a project? This decision involves calculating the risk (with a hazard of a poor mark) and is shaped by our perception. Considering risk can also make us examine our own comfort level with risk, gaining greater self-knowledge. Are you more of a risk-taker, ready to go down uncertain paths, or is your sole desire in life the fastest track to order and stability? No matter the outcome, thinking about risk in a more applied manner urges us to look forward and attempt to manage that risk, whether that be through developing asteroid collision mitigation systems, or simply reaching for the sunscreen.

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