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Friday, December 01, 2006

Looking for Risk in All the Wrong Places

How we get snookered by our fears and by those who exploit them:

Why We Worry About The Things We Shouldn't... ...And Ignore The Things We Should, by Jeffrey Kluger, Time: It would be a lot easier to enjoy your life if there weren't so many things trying to kill you every day. ... There's the fall out of bed that kills 600 Americans each year. ... Will a cabbie's brakes fail when you're in the crosswalk? Will you have a violent reaction to bad food? And what about the ... father and grandfather who died of coronaries in their 50s probably passed the same cardiac weakness on to you. ...

Shadowed by peril as we are, you would think we'd get pretty good at distinguishing the risks likeliest to do us in from the ones that are statistical long shots. But you would be wrong. ... We pride ourselves on being the only species that understands the concept of risk, yet we have a confounding habit of ... building barricades against perceived dangers while leaving ourselves exposed to real ones. ...

Sensible calculation of real-world risks is a multidimensional math problem that sometimes seems entirely beyond us. And while it may be true that it's something we'll never do exceptionally well, it's almost certainly something we can learn to do better.

AN OLD BRAIN IN A NEW WORLD

Part of the problem we have with evaluating risk, scientists say, is that we're moving through the modern world with what is, in many respects, a prehistoric brain. We may think we've grown accustomed to living in a predator-free environment in which most of the dangers of the wild have been driven away..., but our central nervous system--evolving at a glacial pace--hasn't got the message.

To probe the risk-assessment mechanisms of the human mind, Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University .., studies fear pathways in laboratory animals. He explains that the jumpiest part of the brain--of mouse and man--is the amygdala... When you spot potential danger--a stick in the grass that may be a snake, a shadow around a corner that could be a mugger--it's the amygdala that reacts the most dramatically, triggering the fight-or-flight reaction that pumps adrenaline and other hormones into your bloodstream.

It's not until a fraction of a second later that the higher regions of the brain get the signal and begin to sort out whether the danger is real. But that fraction of a second causes us to experience the fear far more vividly than we do the rational response...

"There are two systems for analyzing risk: an automatic, intuitive system and a more thoughtful analysis," says Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. "Our perception of risk lives largely in our feelings, so most of the time we're operating on system No. 1."

There's clearly an evolutionary advantage to this natural timorousness. If we're mindful of real dangers and flee when they arise, we're more likely to live long enough to pass on our genes. But evolutionary rewards also come to those who stand and fight, those willing to take risks--and even suffer injury--in pursuit of prey or a mate. ...

These two impulses--to engage danger or run from it--are constantly at war and have left us with a well-tuned ability to evaluate the costs and payoffs of short-term risk... That, however, is not the kind we tend to face in contemporary society, where threats don't necessarily spring from behind a bush. They're much more likely to come to us in the form of rumors or news broadcasts or an escalation of the federal terrorism-threat level from orange to red. It's when the risk and the consequences of our response unfold more slowly ... that our analytic system kicks in. This gives us plenty of opportunity to overthink--or underthink--the problem, and this is where we start to bollix things up.

WHY WE GUESS WRONG

Which risks get excessive attention and which get overlooked depends on a hierarchy of factors. Perhaps the most important is dread. .... The more pain or suffering something causes, the more we tend to fear it; the cleaner or at least quicker the death, the less it troubles us. "We dread anything that poses a greater risk for cancer more than the things that injure us in a traditional way, like an auto crash," says Slovic. "That's the dread factor." In other words, the more we dread, the more anxious we get, and the more anxious we get, the less precisely we calculate the odds of the thing actually happening...

We also dread catastrophic risks, those that cause the deaths of a lot of people in a single stroke, as opposed to those that kill in a chronic, distributed way. "Terrorism lends itself to excessive reactions because it's vivid and there's an available incident," says Sunstein. "Compare that to climate change, which is gradual and abstract."

Unfamiliar threats are similarly scarier than familiar ones. The next E. coli outbreak is unlikely to shake you up as much as the previous one, and any that follow will trouble you even less. In some respects, this is a good thing, particularly if the initial reaction was excessive...

The problem with habituation is that it can also lead us to go to the other extreme, worrying not too much but too little. Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina brought calls to build impregnable walls against such tragedies ever occurring again. But despite the vows, both New Orleans and the nation's security apparatus remain dangerously leaky. "People call these crises wake-up calls," says Dr. Irwin Redlener, ... director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. "But they're more like snooze alarms. We get agitated for a while, and then we don't follow through."

THE COMFORT OF CONTROL

We similarly misjudge risk if we feel we have some control over it, even if it's an illusory sense. The decision to drive instead of fly is the most commonly cited example, probably because it's such a good one. ... The most white-knuckle time of all was post--Sept. 11, when even confident flyers took to the roads. Not surprisingly, from October through December 2001 there were 1,000 more highway fatalities than in the same period the year before... "It was called the '9/11 effect.' It produced a third again as many fatalities as the terrorist attacks," says David Ropeik, an independent risk consultant..

Then too there's what Ropeik and others call "optimism bias," the thing that makes us glower when we see someone driving erratically while talking on a cell phone, even if we've done the very same thing, perhaps on the very same day. We tell ourselves we're different... What optimism bias comes down to, however, is the convenient belief that risks that apply to other people don't apply to us.

Finally, and for many of us irresistibly, there's the irrational way we react to risky behavior that also confers some benefit. It would be a lot easier to acknowledge the perils of smoking cigarettes or eating too much ice cream if they weren't such pleasures. ... This is especially true since, in most cases, the gratification is immediate and the penalty, if it comes at all, comes later. With enough time and enough temptation, we can talk ourselves into ignoring almost any long-term costs. ...

If these reactions are true for all of us--and they are--then you might think that all of us would react to risk in the same way. But that's clearly not the case. ... Some skydive; others can't imagine it. Not only are thrill seekers not put off by risk, but they're drawn to it... "There's an internal thermostat that seems to control this," says risk expert John Adams of University College London. "That set point varies from person to person and circumstance to circumstance."

No one knows how such a set point gets calibrated, but ... findings support the estimate that about 40% of the high-thrill temperament is learned and 60% inherited...

CAN WE DO BETTER?

Given these idiosyncratic reactions, is it possible to have a rational response to risk? ... One way to start would to be to look at the numbers. Anyone can agree that a 1-in-1 million risk is better than 1 in 10, and 1 in 10 is better than 50-50. But things are almost always more complicated than that, a fact that corporations, politicians and other folks with agendas to push often deftly exploit.

Take the lure of the comforting percentage. In one study, Slovic found that people were more likely to approve of airline safety-equipment purchases if they were told that it could "potentially save 98% of 150 people" than if they were told it could "potentially save 150 people." On its face this reaction makes no sense, since 98% of 150 people is only 147. But there was something about the specificity of the number that the respondents found appealing...

There's also the art of the flawed comparison. Officials are fond of reassuring the public that they run a greater risk from, for example, drowning in the bathtub, which kills 320 Americans a year, than from a new peril like mad cow disease, which has so far killed no one in the U.S. That's pretty reassuring--and very misleading. The fact is that anyone over 6 and under 80--which is to say, the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population--faces almost no risk of perishing in the tub. ...

Risk figures can be twisted in more disastrous ways too. Last year's political best seller, The One Percent Doctrine, by journalist Ron Suskind, ... hit risk analysts where they live. The title of the book is drawn from a White House determination that if the risk of a terrorist attack in the U.S. was even 1%, it would be treated as if it were a 100% certainty. Critics of Administration policy argue that that 1% possibility was never properly balanced against the 100% certainty of the tens of thousands of casualties that would accompany a war. That's a position that may be easier to take in 2006, with Baghdad in flames and the war grinding on, but it's still true that a 1% danger that something will happen is the same as a 99% likelihood that it won't.

REAL AND PERCEIVED RISK

It's not impossible for us to become sharper risk handicappers. For one thing, we can take the time to learn more about the real odds. ... We can do better, ... and leaders in government and industry can help. The residual parts of our primitive brains may not give us any choice beyond fighting or fleeing. But the higher reasoning we've developed over millions of years gives us far greater--and far more nuanced--options. Officials who provide hard, honest numbers and a citizenry that takes the time to understand them would not only mean a smarter nation, but a safer one.

    Posted by on Friday, December 1, 2006 at 03:21 PM in Economics, Science, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (16)

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