Is it Safe ?

Is it safe ?

Is it safe to overtake this lorry ? Is this shelf safe to put these books on ? Is it safe to take out this loan ? Is it safe to try to rewire these lights by myself ? Is it safe to send this critical email to my boss ? Is it safe to have this operation ? Is it safe to put the washing out in this weather ?

We ask these questions all the time – sometimes we’re asking other people, but mostly we’re asking ourselves, usually subconsciously.

Deciding whether something is safe or not is an important life skill, and we’re pretty good at it when considering most familiar everyday issues, but we often struggle to make good decisions when the situation is more complex or unfamiliar.

Next time you’re with a group of friends or colleagues you might want to ask them the following questions.

Not too much thinking about it allowed, no discussion, no caveats or provisos –  just a basic yes or no :

Is travelling by plane safe ? Travelling by car ? Skiing ? Playing Rugby ? Boxing ? GM food ? Pesticides ? Eating fast food ? Receiving donated blood ? Cleaning your home ? Online banking ? Using a mobile phone ? Living by a mobile phone mast ? Being a fisherman ? Being in the army ? Drinking alcohol ? Nuclear power ? Giving birth ? Staying in bed all day ?

The right answer, of course, is that there’s no right answer. People’s opinion of what’s safe varies – it’s subjective.

The dictionary defines SAFE as: ‘free from danger, not exposed to risk’. But we all realise there is some level of risk in almost everything we do, even doing nothing ! The real question is how much risk do we consider acceptable in any given circumstance ?

The dictionary defines RISK as: ‘chance or possibility of danger or harm’. Risk considers the likelihood of a specific event occurring during a specified period of time. unlike safe, risk isn’t subjective, it’s objective.

Well at least that’s the theory.

In the real world assessing risk is complicated.

We rarely actually know the exact level of risk, more often than not we have to estimate it – based on what’s happened before, and what we expect to happen in the future. Needless to say our track record is variable ! Donald Rumsfeld’s well known clumsy phrase attracted a lot of criticism, but it did actually make sense – there are the things we know, the things we know we don’t know, and the things we don’t know we don’t know. When we assess risk we consider what we know, and we make assumptions and estimates regarding what we don’t.

But it’s what we don’t know we don’t know that often posses the biggest risk. These totally unanticipated and unexpected events are what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Black Swan Events . Before the discovery of Australia by Europeans, if you’d asked anyone in England what colour swans were they would have said ‘they’re always white’. No one would have considered that somewhere on Earth there were black swans. Such totally unexpected events are obviously pretty difficult to plan for !

Another issue we now hear a lot about is ‘systemic risk‘ – the big-picture risk affecting not just the specific issue under consideration, but the whole underlying system. For example, if you’re planning a get rich quick scheme at a local casino, a systemic risk factor might be that it closes down before you get a chance to try your scheme – a risk you may well have overlooked (but probably doing you a favour). Prior to the banking crisis, banks were focused on assessing their own risks, not on the prospect that all banks might fail at the same time.

The more complex, interconnected and interdependent our societies become, the more systemic risk exists and the less resilience we have.

So once we’ve assessed the risk as best we can, how do we decide whether it’s ‘safe’ . . .  whether we find the risk acceptable ?

It would be nice to think we weigh up the pros and cons in some kind of logical way, but we’re far too human for that. Our views on the acceptability of risk are subject to a whole host of variables and biases:

  • Is the risk familiar or unfamiliar – we’re more nervous about things that are unfamiliar ?
  • Did we chose the risk voluntarily or was it imposed on us – we accept more risk when we have chosen it for ourselves ?
  • How much control do we have ourselves over the situation – we like to feel in control. If you’re nervous car passenger you know this already ?
  • How does the risk relate to benefit – we trade-off risk versus reward, it’s why we do things we know are bad for us ?
  • How are probability and consequence related – for example we willingly accept a tiny chance of a very good thing happening, compared with the near certainty of  a slightly bad thing happening (loosing our money) when we play the lottery ?
  • How does the risk relate to loss or gain – we like to gain, but we REALLY hate to loose. We’ll make different decisions when considering loosing £1,000, to gaining £1,000 ?
  • Is the risk sudden or gradual – we are focused on sudden changes, and can underestimate the effect of gradual change (such as climate change, or our own weight increasing) ?
  • Is it an active or passive risk – we consider the risk of doing something differently to the risk of doing nothing ?
  • Do we have an emotional connection with the risk, that overpowers all our rationality – dread and phobias are often caused by traumatic past experiences ?
  • How is the risk presented and framed – describing something in a frightening way, and disproportionately focusing on the negative or positive aspects will affect our judgement ?
  • Who is presenting the risk to us – do we trust them, do they seem confident, are they sympathetic. We often tend to automatically oppose or support messages based on their source and our own prejudices ?
  • There is another vitally important question to consider when pondering your views on the acceptability of any given risk – who is taking the consequences of the risk, and who is benefiting from the reward ?

Our lives are full of risks, and we make decisions about them on a daily basis.

If we want to build a better future, we need to make better informed decisions about risk and what we consider safe – global warming, environmental degradation, pollution, food and water security, peak oil, energy options, biotechnology and GM, economic systems – how well do we understand the risks involved.

We should build a habit of asking critical questions about risk, and checking-in with ourselves occasionally about what we consider safe and why.

The world is complex.

Sometimes we might need to be prepared to change our mind.


Photo from Bien Stephenson  via Flickr

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