Friday, August 17, 2007


(News-Herald, August 16)There are two factors to consider in risk assessment—how likely the risk is, and how great the cost would be.

When something is not likely to happen, and the cost would not be great, risk barely registers. Why do people drive up and down Route 8 at Mach 6? Because they figure that A) odds are against the police being around to catch them and B) a ticket wouldn’t be all that costly.

What makes them slow down? If they see a parked police car poised to pounce, the Likelihood of Being Caught estimate rockets up to nearly %100. If drivers have already collected so many tickets that their collection of points is Much Too High, then the cost of being caught becomes prohibitive. In both cases, they are more likely to slow down.

Many of us are naturally inclined to weigh one risk assessment factor more than the other. In fact, when we see a battle between people over a risky behavior, it’s often between people who are counting different factors.

Mom warns Junior to drive slowly and carefully for the zillionth time because she has a vivid and gut-wrenchingly clear mental picture of what it would be like to have police come to tell her that her child has been killed. Junior laughs at her fretting because he feels certain that, no matter how fast he drives, he’s simply too good to ever have an accident.

These different approaches are probably at the center of many parent-child arguments. Dad is focused on the cost factor, so he tells his daughter to never, ever, ever get in a car driven by a friend who’s been drinking.

Juniorette hears that, and since she assesses risk based on likelihood, she thinks that the heavy-duty warning means that Dad believes it’s likely she’ll ride with a drunk driver, and that he doesn’t trust her to make the right choice. In fact, he trusts her 99 times out of 100, but all he can think is that one time is enough to create unendurable tragedy.

Many household arguments that end with an offspring screaming “You just don’t trust me” start with two different styles of risk assessment.

The same argument takes place in the public sector as well. In the days after 9/11, everybody wanted to build a cage around every important place in the USA. The likelihood of a terrorist attack on the birthplace of Lawrence Welk wasn’t because everyone was gripped by a vivid understanding of how awful a terrorist attack could be.

Or take a whacko grabbing his gun and going on a school grounds rampage. The chances of such an event were the same the day before the Virginia Tech shootings as they were the day after. This fall, the chance of such an attack won’t have decreased a bit, but the memory of the horror will have faded, and with it, our need to be on high alert 24/7.

And, of course, we’ll spend the next month of our national ADD anxiety attack on bridge safety, not because there’s any reason the believe that bridges across the Allegheny are any less stable today than they were yesterday, but because we suddenly can imagine how awful a collapse would be. In a month or two, the comforting fog of denial will roll in again.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In this world there’s a long list of really horrible things that could happen. The list includes tragedies that aren’t impossible—just improbable. If we were constantly, vividly aware of the potential disasters, we’d lock ourselves in the basement and never do a thing.

Risk assessment is hard. Some folks are too certain they’ll always avoid potential disaster. Others lack the imagination to appreciate how really awful disaster could be. And some people overestimate both and live in a state of eternal fear.

Media often make matters worse, either by making the possible disaster seem extra awful, or by artificially inflating the likelihood that disaster may strike. “Epidemics” like the fabled summer rash of shark attacks a few years ago—these are often complete fabrications with no basis in fact, and yet millions of Americans become convinced that the scary wave is real.

And sometimes the very thing that magnifies the impact of an imagine disaster is our own human hearts. A possible hurt or disappointment suffered by a child becomes massive suffering to the parent who loves that child so much.

Risk is part of the price we pay for being alive. We can’t make it go away by ignoring it, and we can’t escape it by running from every shadow. After all running away also has risks. Our best bet is to try not to do anything stupid, then find and share the strength to deal with what comes.

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