Our affective risk response system, a mix of instinct and intellect, reason and gut reaction, has evolved to deal with simpler dangers…hunger and wolves and bad guys with clubs. It’s great for simpler, immediate risks, but it’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer at cutting through more complex, longer range threats, and that bodes poorly for dealing with the immensely complex threat
…the human risk perception system is based more on emotion and instincts than on reason and rationality.
We are overly optimistic about things when they are far enough in the future that we can’t see the details. Optimism Bias, the academics call it. Though climate change is apparently already underway, the harms we hear about lie beyond the horizon of time, and we tend to see what lies beyond the horizon through rose-colored glasses. Which is not great news for the complex long term perils of our unsustainable ways.
…we commonly react more powerfully, emotionally, to dangers that are represented by a face, or a name, or some real tangible victim. A person, like you. Numbers are abstract. People are real. Ideas may get us to think, but risks presented as real people get us to feel, and act. Which is why people give more money to help one or two identified orphaned children than to help “all those orphaned children all over the world”. As Stalin himself observed “One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.”
Well, where are the individual faces and names of the victims of climate change? (Polar bears don’t count.) Certainly there are people suffering because of sea level rise, and more frequent extreme weather, and melting permafrost on which a lot of buildings in cold northern parts of the world are built. But those victims remain faceless, nameless, anonymous. The dramatic perils we face from the unsustainable way the species is impacting the biosphere remain abstract, and as a result we don’t lose much sleep about them.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, we know it. We know that the human system of risk perception, emphasizing instinct over intellect and feelings over facts, can get things wrong. We know that our risk perception system, for all it’s powers, is a risk in and of itself. And we have figured out a lot of the details about how the human risk perception system works. Hopefully we’re smart enough to realize that if the system can get us into trouble, we’d better use what we know about how that system works to avoid its pitfalls.
Take your time!
Our risk perception system makes up its mind subconsciously, and quickly, before we have all the facts. That “Blink” instinct may be good for avoiding simple and immediate dangers, but it’s not the most thoughtful way to figure out what to do about complex future threats like climate change
Don’t be a tribal ditto head!
Research has found that we shape our opinions to agree with the tribes/groups with which we most strongly identify. That strengthens the tribe, and the tribe’s acceptance of us as members in good standing, both important because as social animals we depend on our tribes literally for our survival. But when the issue is your health, do you want to have your own opinion, or just somebody else’s? Don’t just get your information from people or organizations with which you already agree
Beware Optimism Bias
We’re overly optimistic about what lies down the road, when the details are hazy. Try to envision things as if they are imminent. That will give you a more realistic feeling about the risk you’re judging.
Think about tradeoffs
Most choices involve both risks and benefits, but we usually put more emphasis on the risks.
And don’t forget risk-risk tradeoffs, when to get rid of one, we wind up with another
Don’t be fooled by how a risk feels
Risks feel safer if you have a sense of control, but driving is riskier than flying. A risk you choose to engage in feels less risky than a risk that’s imposed on you, but you’re at greater risk driving and using a cell phone than you are from nearby drivers doing the same thing.
- David Ropeik