Day 171. Perceptions of risk

In January 2013 on January 30, 2013 at 9:02 pm


Do statistics like “you have a 1 in 11 million risk of being killed in a plane crash” mean anything to you?

Does the statement “the risk of having a baby with Downs Syndrome increases with higher maternal age” make sense?

If not, you’re not alone. It’s pretty tricky grappling with numbers which describe populations overall, and trying to mould them into something which makes sense for your particular circumstances.

This week, Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel and The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?) wrote an article for the New York Times describing risk.

That Daily Shower Can Be A Killer explores

“the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently”.

Like showering. In the elderly (Diamond is in his 70s), each shower carries a risk of major injury due to slipping. The risk associated with each individual shower is probably very low. But Diamond argues that when combined with the frequency with which one has a shower – daily, for most of us – the overall remaining lifetime risk of injury is not insubstantial. At the very least, it’s worth being aware of. He refers to the phenomenon as “constructive paranoia”.  Diamond then goes on to say that in America, a biased perception of risk can be dangerous, in that

“we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control (“That would never happen to me — I’m careful”) and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way”.

It makes me think about texting whilst driving. Sure, the risk of having a crash if you only do it once is probably pretty low. But if you conduct it several times a day, perhaps you are pushing the numbers way beyond a sensible limit.

[image thanks to mrJasonWeaver on flickr]


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