Which do you think is riskier?

 

Some situations seem far more dangerous to us than others, but the perceived risk is often quite far from the truth, writes NIAMH DORNAN

WHY DO MANY of us dread stepping onto an aircraft but happily jump into any car, no matter how competent the driver? Why does scrambling up a ladder to paint the house seem safer than swimming in deep water?

It all has to do with how we perceive risk. We weigh risk in various ways, such as whether we have control over what is happening. We also view a situation as riskier if children are involved, according to experts.

If we look at the numbers only, a different picture can emerge. The lifetime risk of dying in an air crash is 1 in 7,178, according to the National Safety Council of America. This is far lower than the 1 in 98 chance of dying in a car crash or the 1 in 701 chance of being killed as a pedestrian. Cyclists face a 1 in 4,381 chance of dying on their bicycles over their lifetime.

Fear of flying was so intense after 9/11 that many people in the US opted to drive rather than fly across the country. The number of road fatalities increased significantly there over this period. The statistical risk associated with flying barely changed after 9/11, but the event was so fresh in people’s minds and so extensively covered in the media that the perceived risk of flying increased significantly.

“If something is easy to remember, we think, OK, this thing must be more frequent. So if we can easily recall something bad we think it must be more of a danger than something we can’t easily recall,” says Dr Dylan Evans, who lectures at University College Cork. “But, of course, we can often recall things just because we’ve seen them in the media.”

This effect is called availability bias, and it is just one of a number of cognitive biases and short cuts we use to quickly assess risk. “Take control, for example. One of the reasons people might have a fear of flying might be because they feel out of control. The pilot is doing it all for them, and that generally tends to make people feel stressed out,” says Evans.

We also perceive a situation as being riskier if it is forced on us. Risk sports, where people take part in dangerous activities, such as jumping out of aircraft, for recreation, are seen by the people doing them as less dangerous than they might otherwise be, as they have freely chosen to get involved. These biases can help or hinder us in estimating risk, often causing us to overestimate it.

Evans has been researching the idea of risk intelligence since 2009. “Risk-intelligent people are people who can know when those cognitive short cuts are leading us down the wrong path and when they’re not,” Evans says. Risk intelligence can be described as how good a person is at estimating probabilities.

“It depends on how well you can access your self-knowledge in order to estimate probabilities, and there’s a lot more to that than meets the eye,” says Colm Fitzgerald, who lectures at Dublin City University. Fitzgerald is an adviser to Evans’s company Projection Point, which provides risk-intelligence assessments.

There are four sides to managing risk, says Fitzgerald: the rational, the emotional, the irrational and the psychological. Risk intelligence is an attempt at managing a cross between the psychological side and the purely mathematical, logical side.

For his research, Evans interviewed some professional gamblers, including the businessman JP McManus. “I was looking into decision theory, and I was quite surprised that the early maths of it was based on the study of optimal gambling behaviour,” says Evans.

He created a test for risk intelligence based on a method called calibration testing. The test involves answering a number of general knowledge questions. Answers are given on a scale where 0 per cent equals saying false, 50 per cent equals saying unsure and 100 per cent is the equivalent of answering “true”. In this way people can indicate how confident they are about their answers.

The test differs from other risk-intelligence tests, such as the Berlin Numeracy Test, which are based purely on mathematical ability.

“You can get loads of really good gamblers and people with high risk intelligence who know what to bet on and who can calculate risk incredibly well, but they cannot do these numeracy tests,” says Evans. “In the same way you can get high numeracy scores because you’re good at maths but you might be no good at actually figuring out what to bet on.

“It’s not about whether you can solve a few fancy maths questions but can you take into account everything you know about a situation and come up with a rough idea of how likely something is to happen. That is a much more complicated and complex skill, so you need to measure it a different way.”

Risk intelligence is an important trait for people in areas that involve predicting what might happen in the future, such as weather forecasters, entrepreneurs and investors.

“One of the differences between an entrepreneur and someone who is not an entrepreneur is that they are generally what is called risk-loving, as opposed to risk-averse. If you were given the bet where heads you win €150 and tails you lose €100, most people on the street wouldn’t take it, even though it’s an excellent bet. An entrepreneur would say yes. They would be happier with the risk than the average guy,” says Fitzgerald.

When Evans began his research, the financial crisis was at its peak. “Bankers and financial regulators obviously didn’t have very much , and they were overconfident. They thought they knew more than they did, and as a result they weren’t aware of all the risks.

“They said, ‘Oh, house prices will never fall: they will go on rising forever,’ ” says Evans. “They sounded so sure of it, but they all came out with egg on their faces, so I was thinking about how could we find a way of spotting people who have better risk intelligence in the future.”

If you want to find out how good you are at analysing risk, you can try Evans’s test, at projectionpoint.com. You can also take the Berlin Numeracy Test at riskliteracy.comor take part in the BBC’s Big Risk Test at bbc.co.uk/labuk.

For the record, there is a one in 163 lifetime risk of death if you are inclined to climb up a ladder, but only a one in 1,103 risk of drowning. If you are scared of dogs, bear in mind that there is only a one in 144,899 chance of being killed by one. You are slightly more likely to be killed if struck by lightning, which has a one in 134,906 lifetime risk.

To hell or to hospital: Comparing danger in different scenarios

Where would you expect to face a greater risk of death: spending a day as a patient in hospital or a day as a soldier in Afghanistan? When you are considering how to get to work, do you consider the risk associated with your mode of transport?

Using units known as micromorts you can easily compare risk of death associated with different activities and situations. One micromort is equal to a one in a million chance of death – or, put another way, the same likelihood as flipping a coin 20 times and getting the same side each time.

The micromort was introduced by Prof Ronald A Howard, of Stanford University, as a way to make small fatal risks more comparable.

Prof David Spiegelhalter, the Winton professor of public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, has calculated that a soldier stationed in Afghanistan will be exposed to an average of 33 micromorts per day. Yet spending a day in a British hospital exposes a patient to 70 micromorts.

Prof Spiegelhalter says on his blog that these values are only estimates and are not truly comparable, because these situations are not things that anyone would have to choose between. But they can illustrate the size of the risk faced in these situations.

So what other activities are more dangerous than we might think? Walking and cycling are considered to be healthy and environmentally friendly, but they expose you to a much higher chance of death than driving does. Per 160km travelled, driving will expose you to an average of half a micromort. Cycling will expose you to five micromorts, and walking exposes you to six micromorts, over the same distance. Motorcyclists truly live dangerously, being exposed to 17 micromorts per 160km.