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.