How the humans assess risk

by Captain Walker

Categories: Humanities

I’m giving an example of how the humans assess risk. Recently I came across a human who would not drink tap water, especially from hotels for fear of contracting Legionnaire’s disease. In a nutshell there are 500 cases of the disease in the UK per year, of which 160 cases are contracted abroad. There is a 1 in 10 chance of death if you catch it.

At the time I did not know the above stats, so I asked the human if s/he knew anyone who had contracted Legionnaire’s disease. The answer was ‘no’. And I asked what was the risk of contracting Legionnaire’s disease in the UK. The human did not know that either. But the human referred vaguely to some outbreak some years ago. All this is what led me to try and find out – as I did above.

But the interesting thing is to compare risks. Okay so the risk of being burnt or scalded in the home is 1 in 610. References at the end. Well 500 cases of Legionnaires in a population of 60 million roughly equates to 1 in 120,000. So if one is worried about risk of Legionnaire’s then one should avoid  turning on a hot water tap, using a kettle, a stove or an electric iron. Well, that is if such a human is knowledgeable about the risk and decides to make decisions based on extrapolation.

The point is – and I make no apology for not doing a thesis on this – is that humans don’t really have a cognitive evaluation of risk when they make lots of decisions. What happens it that they become worried about something and their anxiety tells them to avoid the thing they know may cause some harm. But actual knowledge or real assessment of the risk – primarily a cognitive activity – is not normally in the process of decision-making. Look, trust me there are dozens of other examples similar to this Legionnaire’s thing.

Over the years I’ve come across two different but related difficulties in assessing risk. (Yes, I know there are more than two. Chrysst!! Can I just get on with it please! What? Have you got some kind of inferiority complex or sumik? And no – I’m not a schizophrenic; I just know what you’re gonna think before you think it – there.)

  1. When risk is silent – unseen, unheard, intangible and remote in temporal or physical proximity – it is assumed by the humans to be minor.
  2. And the above with the Legionnaire’s example where personal anxiety causes a truly remote risk to appear magnified out of proportion.

Both of these phenomena are unified by failure of the primitive ‘animal’ caught in a modern cognitive world. They – the humans – continue to live scared or recklessly, because they are ruled by primitive decision-making forces. (Yeah yeah.. calm down, you can add a ‘proportion of humans’ to qualify my statements. Chrysst! I keep having to preface every bledy thing, to cater for some plonker who’s gonna go in a sing-song voice, “Not everybody is like thaaaattttt?”. Spare me – not today, please.)

See also: Various risks


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