Cognitive availability and risk assessment

Tom Chivers has written an excellent blog post on what a “less risk-averse culture in schools” would mean in practice: namely, “more children will die or be seriously injured.”

But I just wanted to pick out one detail from Mr Chivers’ post: namely, why we are so averse to some risks, and not to others:

We are petrified of certain kinds of high-profile but low-probability risk, but indifferent to other, more objectively dangerous but less dramatic ones. Murder, paedophilia, terrorism: these get headlines. Diabetes, asthma, traffic deaths: these don’t. But you are likely to be afraid of the first three, despite them being far less likely to affect you.

Plenty of other examples can be given: I recall, at the height of the BSE scare in the 1990s, a journalist observing the irony of people swearing they would never eat beef again – while queuing at the tobacco counter to buy cigarettes. A more common example is people being more afraid of flying than of getting into a car.

I’ve often wondered why it is that we assess risk in such a non-rational manner, and thanks to Tom Chivers’ blog post I now have the answer (or at least part of it): the “availability heuristic”.

We judge the likelihood of something happening by how easily we can call to mind examples of it; how available it is to our memory.

He quotes the psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, who describes the mental process we go through when assessing risk:

When we are asked a difficult question, instead of analysing the statistics of it – a job for the rational part of the brain – we often allow our instinctive “gut reaction” part answer a related, simpler question. So in answer to the question “How dangerous is terrorism?”, our brain, instead of going through the laborious statistics of it (“What do I know about the death rate from terrorism? How certain can I be of those statistics? Am I personally at more or less risk than the base rate?”), provides the answer to the question “How easily can I think of an example of terrorism?”

And, because the images of terrorism are visceral, dramatic and widely repeated in the media, the (statistically misleading) answer is “very”.

Fascinating and illuminating.


7 thoughts on “Cognitive availability and risk assessment”

  1. Whenever I see a worst-case scenario painted without any reference to its likelihood of happening, I can’t help remembering the sluggard in Proverbs, who refuses to leave the house because ‘There is a lion in the streets!’ For sure, there may be: but unless you can assign some level of likelihood to the worst-case scenario, you haven’t a clue whether it is needless scaremongering or prudent caution.

  2. I think that it is also important to recognize that those things that qualify as ‘risks’ will be very much defined by the reigning anthropology. For instance, how seriously do we want to deal with the risks of the drinking and hook-up culture? The culture of overwork? The social fragmentation that is occasioned by our economic system? How about the risks of pornography? Are there moral risks to society from violent video games, movies, and lyrics? How do we deal with such things? Heavy participation in a culture of sexual promiscuity and binge drinking shortens countless lives and entails moral risks that harm society as well.

    It is not as if we have moved from a society desensitized to risk to one that takes it very seriously. Rather, we are moving from a society that took moral risks extremely seriously towards a society where human worth and meaning is invested wholly in the body and the experiences proper to it and so physical risks are the ones taken most seriously. However, those physical risks that accompany the gods of our age (money, pleasure, sex) are permissible. The physical risks entailed by sexual promiscuity and binge drinking are viewed with more tolerance because the risks accompany two of the transcendent experiences afforded to our bodies and the risks of capitalism are tolerated because it gives meaning to our existence.

    We can learn a lot from attending to which risks are taken seriously.

    1. Great points. “Those physical risks that accompany the gods of our age (money, pleasure, sex) are permissible” – just as (by analogy) earlier ages were able (or rather, required) to overlook the “moral risks” that accompanied the things they valued: moral risks such as the subjection and marginalisation of women (in the name of sexual virtue) or of other peoples (in the name of the civilising benefits of empire).

      Similarly, those former ages also extolled physical risk in the name of particularly highly valued ends. “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – Owen’s dismissal of this as “the old lie” marking the threshold between that old outlook and the modern.

      1. Very true. My initial moral risks -> physical risks approach is a grossly simplistic framing: thanks for adding some balance there.

        It would be interesting to explore the development of our sensitization to particular types of risks and tolerance of others. As you point out, physical risk was often extolled in the past and was certainly more tolerated, whether we are talking about torture, sanguinary wars, corporal and capital punishment, or risk to life and limb in the workplace. I suspect that the tolerance for slavery, the subjection of women, colonial oppression, the brutal conditions of the workplace, extreme destitution, famine, environmental destruction, and bloody wars are not unrelated, arising from a particular moral sensibility. Our moral sensibility is incredibly sensitive to assaults upon the integrity of the physical being and the autonomy of human beings. However, we are less attentive to assaults upon humanity’s moral nature in many areas, and we are able to tolerate similar forms of oppression to our ancestors provided that they are clean and clinical, carried out through institutions and agencies that maintain the appearance of bloodlessness (prisons, drones, psychological control and manipulation of others, political bureaucracy, market forces, etc.). In that respect the mischief done within our blindspots may be especially insidious.

  3. Those are very true thoughts. It always has been.You have a better chance of dying death through terminal diseases,accidents,etc.To tell the truth people should be educated with some informal risk assessment training.Instead of learning what to fear rather they should be learning how to tackle whatever they fear.Don’t you agree?

    1. Yes, I think more education about how probability works would help equip people against scaremongers and snake-oil salesmen of many different varieties.

  4. I’ve read another account of why we take certain risks more seriously. It is found in what your cited author mentioned as visceral and dramatic images. Less so the availability of the images, than the fact that they are so inherently dreadful. A plane crash looks like a scarier experience than an auto crash. (For that matter, I don’t know that the image of a plane crash is so much more easy to conjure up.) The plane crash involves the idea of experiencing great terror for some time before death. Auto accidents are often sudden and may involve little experience. Further, Antonio D’Amasio’s somatic marker hypothesis might suggest that we wouldn’t have to bring up the imagery at all to have some sense of relative weight of pain and pleasure assigned to these experiences. We perform all kinds of cost/benefit analyses without any conscious thought at all.

    I think the availability heuristic is plausible, and very interesting. But in some of these cases, other things we know about cognition may be in play.

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