• Jennifer Barnick

We Are All Bad at Risk Assessment

Photo Source: Flickr

We are all bad at risk assessment (or risk perception). Nowadays, people in the news, on social media, social groups, and family gatherings are shaming people with a different take on a risk as being selfish, authoritarian, or stupid. However, it’s essential to repeat that we are all bad at risk assessment. As for people who like to throw around the term science denier—nothing is more science-denying than thinking people can make purely rational decisions based on statistical evidence. The idea that people could base their decisions on pure reason (circa 1700’s enlightenment era) is as false and dated as spontaneous generation, or believing that sneezing after sex would prevent pregnancy (as they did in ancient Greece). Today, with our advances in neurology, evolutionary biology, social biology, and behavioral economics, we have now realized that if you have a healthy brain, you are irrational. “In fact, the evidence is clear that we sometimes can’t help making such mistakes. Our perceptions, of risk or anything else, are products of cognitive processes that operate outside our conscious control—running facts through the filters of our feelings and producing subjective judgments that disregard the evidence.” (Know This First: Risk Perception Is Always Irrational by David Ropeik, April 4, 2016)

What are some of the stumbling blocks that cause us to be bad at perceiving risk? A basic way of mapping our brains when it comes to risk perception is to know some of our triggers. If the risk is voluntary, we generally view it as lower than it is: like driving versus flying or sun radiation (getting a tan) versus the radiation risks of nuclear power. If it involves potentially harming kids, people go berserk and will greatly overestimate the danger. If we are optimistic, we will generally underestimate the risk—"sure most people get cancer from this activity, but I won’t." Even whether we respond to risk with fear versus anger affects our risk perception. “Strong visceral emotions such as fear and anger sometimes play a role in risk as feelings. These two emotions appear to have opposite effects—fear amplifies risk estimates, and anger attenuates them (Lerner, Gonzalez, Small & Fischotf, 2003; Lerner & Keltner, 2000). Lerner and colleagues have explained these differences by proposing that fear arises from appraisals of uncertainty and situational control, whereas anger arises from appraisals of certainty and individual control.” (Risk Perception and Affect by Paul Slovic and Ellen Peters, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2006) Essentially, before our cerebral cortex, or the reason portion of our brain, has a chance to check things out and go over the facts, our amygdala, the part of our brain that processes fear, quickly makes a call in the form of emotions or feelings. Those emotions or feelings will then affect our interpretation of the facts. There is no way our cerebral cortex could jump in the situation first and make the assessment—it is simply not how we are wired. “The amygdala is commonly thought to form the core of a neural system for processing fearful and threatening stimuli, including detection of threat and activation of appropriate fear-related behaviors in response to threatening or dangerous stimuli. Thus, it is a natural candidate for a neural structure that could modulate the emotional responsiveness of face processing areas in the brain. Indeed, humans with amygdala damage tend to be impaired in recognizing emotional facial expressions, especially fearful ones.” (Facing the role of the amygdala in emotional information processing by Mark G. Baxter and Paula L. Croxson, December 2012, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, pnas.org)

Besides emotions affecting our ability to assess risk, news media, including social media, also greatly influence how we perceive risk. The huge problem with media is that they often misinterpret the statistics or, worse, inflate a threat to garner a large audience. In an article from Undark, an online science magazine, a haunting real-world example was given. Because the news media was constantly inflating the risks of radiation and its possible link to thyroid cancer in children after a 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, all children in the area were screened for thyroid cancer. “The levels of radiation to which kids had been exposed were too low to pose significant danger, and the sensitive ultrasound screening technique is well known to find abnormal cells in most people’s thyroids, though in nearly all cases those cells will never cause cancer. As a result of this unprecedented scrutiny for an infinitesimal risk, hundreds of kids have had their thyroids removed unnecessarily, with far reaching health implications for the rest of their lives.” (Know this First: Risk Perception is Always Irrational by David Ropeik, April 4, 2016, undark.org) It is important to understand that when we are watching the news or reports on social media regarding various threats to our health, our children, or our nation, what we are watching is profoundly affecting us emotionally, whether we are aware of it or not. If we think our brains can rationally judge the facts as we watch the news or go on social media, think again, we are being filled with emotions that will dictate how our brains assess the facts and not the other way around.

What can we do if we are irrational? One thing we can do is become more present, so we can better detect our emotional state. Our cerebral cortex is pretty awesome at going over facts and using reason to figure out what is truly dangerous and what is not so dangerous. If you sense you are afraid, understand you most likely will err towards inflating a risk. If you feel you are angry, then the opposite is true. Additionally, acknowledge your temperament. If you are a generally optimistic person, understand that you will most likely underestimate a risk. Also, learning a little about statistics can help you better assess what research is saying. Often lay people and people in the media significantly misinterpret statistics and statistical terms. There are a lot of free resources online to learn the basics of statistics. Lastly, we are currently in a world where a lot of hatred, smug superiority, fear, anger, and divisiveness are flooding every corner of our lives, from the news outlets to social media and even our personal and familial lives. In my journey studying risk assessment and risk perception, it became evident that all of us are bad at it. All of us are irrational. To insult someone or, worse, to be angry at someone who has assessed a risk differently than you is to be in total denial of all your lousy judgment calls regarding risk. The only way to better decisions requires patience, self-awareness, and a better understanding of statistics.

Developing and utilizing patience, self-awareness, and self-enrichment through education are pretty difficult things to do in our hectic lives. Even trying one of the suggestions, like tracking your emotions as you appraise facts, could be life-altering. And again, if you think you are, due to your profession or education, outside of this irrationality regarding risk assessment, think again. The Fred Hutch Organization is a non-profit bringing together world-renowned scientists and humanitarians to fight cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases. Taken from one of their website articles: “Research shows that even doctors frequently misinterpret risks directly relevant to their medical specialty. This misunderstanding can affect patient care, affecting a doctor’s likelihood of recommending particular treatments or tests.” (Numbers Don’t Lie but Sometimes Our Brains Do by Susan Keown, February 13, 2020, fredhutch.org)

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.