How I Feel About Risk

How I Feel About Risk

Risk“The earliest studies of risk perception also found that, where as risk and benefit tend to be positively correlated in the world, they are negatively correlated in people’s minds.”

“If their feelings toward an activity are favorable, they are moved toward judging the risks as low and the benefits as high; if their feelings towards it are unfavorable, they tend to judge the opposite – high risk and low benefit.”

Slovic (2010, p.26)

These are the thoughts of Paul Slovic from his 2010 book, The Feeling of Risk.

Readers of this site will be familiar with the proposition that risk is subjective. This of course does not mean that everyone accepts this notion, as I know that there are many in risk and safety that continue to argue that risk is objective. However, there is certainly more discussion about the subjective nature of risk than when I started in the industry over 20 years ago.

When we accept that risk is subjective, that it is connected to feelings and emotions, and that many of our decisions and judgments about risk are not always made in a rational, analytical and logical way, we may be better able to understand and support people to deal with risk.

An experience that I shared with a good friend last week is a good example of ‘how I feel about risk’ can impact on the decisions that I make about it.

To begin this story, I should point out that I’m a car fan; this dates back to my childhood. I love to drive in, and experience, different cars; I find them fun and enjoyable. In particular, I like fast cars. My wife De knows this, so of course a perfect Christmas present for me was a voucher for a one-hour drive in a Lamborghini.

I was on a high leading up to last weekend when I would use the voucher and share the drive with my great mate Macca. We’ve been talking for months now about how fun the drive would be. One might say we were pumped and feeling favorable about the activity.

So last Saturday afternoon we arrived at the place where the Lamborghini is parked, ready for our adventure. We were instructed to arrive 20 minutes before our departure time so we could run through the required safety briefings and induction.

This part was pretty painless, it involved me being breath tested (tick!), a basic run down of the features of the car including how the gears work (tick!) and a little bit of planning for the route we were going to take (tick!).

Of course, there were also the six pages of paperwork that I signed (without reading thoroughly of course, goodness knows what I signed up to!), and then I had to pay a $2000 bond that I was not expecting. Then came an important moment.

Just before I hopped into the car, I was reminded that I was about to step into a car that cost $500,000 when purchased new. I was told that the car was in pristine condition and that there had been no accidents from people hiring the car in the two years that the business has been running.

Primed with this information, while at the same time still pumped for the drive, I was then asked to sign the insurance waiver form which basically meant that I was responsible for payment of the excess (or ‘deductible’) for the insurance of the car if I was the ‘at fault’ person in an accident. The potential damage to my bank account if I had an incident, $10,000!

I signed the form, headed over to the car and prepared to take off. I was feeling pretty good about this drive, I’d been waiting for months, my great mate was by my side, and this car was a cracker. I then paused and thought for a moment.

I’m about to drive a car that I have never driven before and it goes from 0 to 100km/h in 3.8 seconds. This thing is a beast to drive, and I’m going to have to cough up $10,000 if I have an accident. I became a little nervous, one might say a little less favorable about the activity.

The guy that owned the business was quick to usher me into the car, he invited me to start the engine, the sound of the exhaust was like music to my ears, this was going to be a fun ride. But what about the $10,000 if I crashed?

I must admit that this did concern me as I drive off in the car. I was worried about what might happen if I were to have an accident. For the first 15-20 minutes of the drive, I drove very cautiously until I got a ‘feel’ for the car. I then started to feel much more relaxed. We hit a 100km/hr zone and I was able to ‘give it a bit’, I was cruising in that beast and loved it. By the time I got half way through the one hour drive, the thought of the $10,000 excess wasn’t as relevant anymore, I was enjoying the drive, another thing off my bucket list, I was feeling favorable about the activity.

It’s interesting to reflect back now about how I feel about risk. In the weeks leading up to, and as I arrived for the drive, my feelings for the activity were very favorable, and I reckon if you had asked me about the risks associated with the drive, I suspect I could only name very few. This was a low risk and high benefit activity for me.

However, as I signed that form and got in the car, my feelings about the activity were less favorable, at least for a little while. I started to worry as I changed lanes, I was asking Macca to check over my shoulder and I was very cautious. How I felt about risk at that moment was that it was high.

As I became more comfortable with the car, I started to feel more favorable about the activity, in fact as the vehicle arrived at 140km/hr after I ‘put the foot down’ I was feeling very favorable indeed and on an emotional high. Combine this with the fact that Macca was sitting beside me with a grin on his face a mile wide, and I know it was very favorable. $10,000 wasn’t even on my mind.

When I am aware that how I feel about an activity may impact on how I assess risks, perhaps I am better able to discern it. My awareness of how I was feeling about risk did impact on how I considered risk throughout the drive. I’m conscious that it changed, I can reflect now and think about this. As I was going through the emotions (in my non-conscious mind) of the drive however it was very hard for me to consider the risk in a rational and logical way, as I did before I started to drive. My feelings about the activity definitely shaped the way that I considered the risks associated with it.

Does how you view and activity (favorably or not) impact on how you feel about risk? Are there activities that you feel favorable about that might be impacting on how you think about risk?

Or, is your view that it is objective and has nothing to do with ‘feeling?

As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and comments.

Author: Robert Sams

Phone: 0424 037 112



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Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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