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Risky or not?
It depends on who you ask!
Just like beauty, risk is in the eye of the beholder! What is high risk to someone is not a big deal to another.
A dimly-lit alley with no one around? To some, it may be a potentially very unsafe situation. To many others, this is nothing to worry about.
Everything we do on a daily basis involves some level of risk.
A routine commute to work each morning can turn into a nightmare, ranging from a minor fender-bender to a life-threatening crash. A slip, trip or fall can result in a minor sprain, or a debilitating fracture. Cuts, burns and bruises are a routine feature of everyday life.
These are only a few examples of daily hazards.
There are many other risks, not all related to physical harm. New risks emerge as Technology advances. Over time, we all develop our own unique way of evaluating these risks and strategies for managing them. Some of us become extremely cautious, while others not so much. Some of us take a conservative approach, while others seek out a new, risky adventure each day. Individual perceptions and attitudes about risks are as unique as each one of us.
How do we come up with a common, effective approach to risk management? What should be regulated and to what extent? These are difficult questions and often lead to heated debates!
A lot of research has been done on risk perception1 and how social and cultural factors shape our attitudes about risk and uncertainty. I decided to get a personal view of these differences at an individual level through a direct, though not very scientific, survey of my audience at a recent presentation.
I was recently speaking at the Northeast Florida chapter of the Project Management Institute, where I had an opportunity to simply ask my audience to rate a series of images showing common activities as either a high risk or a low risk.
We called it “Let’s Play – Risky or Not” game!
I did not provide any descriptive titles or commentary for these images. The idea was to let each person decide the level of risk from their unique viewpoint. Each image was shown on the screen for 20 seconds during which the audience was asked to select either high risk and low risk using their smartphone via kahoot.it. There was no discussion, no clarification of high or low, and each person was free to interpret the images and the two levels in any way they felt appropriate.
The graphic below shows a summary of responses for each image. The red bar for each image shows the number of people who felt it to be a high-risk situation, while the blue bar represents the number of people who marked it as low risk. The grey bar represents no answer selected. There were a total of 50 responses for each image.
It is interesting to note the differences in risk perception for each situation. In general, most people believe texting while driving is high risk, yet it is so common to see a lot of drivers on the road frequently texting. Similarly, riding a motorcycle on a city street, or highway, is generally viewed as a high-risk activity. At the same time, nearly 20% (11 out of 50) felt it was low risk. There is a clear difference between attitudes about perceptions of driving related risks.
Consider the case of vaping as shown in the 3rd image on the left. Nearly 80% (38 out of 50) felt it was high risk, and sure enough, there has been a lot about it in the news recently. Health risks of vaping are not yet completely known, and unlike smoking, there is no significant regulatory oversight. In general, people have fairly strong opinions about smoking and most are aware of its harmful effects. It will be interesting to see how public opinion evolves about vaping over time.
The case of the New York Exchange stock market as shown in the 4th image on the left is interesting. Nearly half (27 out of 50) felt it was high risk. The stock market has been through a lot of ups-and-downs and the last economic downturn is still fresh in everyone’s memory. Yet, a lot of people are invested in the stock market through their 401k plans.
Who doesn’t love the thrill of a roller-coaster ride in an amusement park! Not surprisingly, nearly 80% (38 out of 50) felt it was low risk. Once in a while, there is news of roller-coaster accidents, but generally they are considered quite safe.
The case of a dimly-lit alley (2nd image on the right) is a curious one. There was an even split between those who thought it to be a high-risk situation vs. those who didn’t. It depends on where the alley is and how familiar people are with the neighborhood. Evaluation of risk in this type of a situation is highly personal.
The next two images (3rd and 4th on the right) present another interesting scenario. Drinking out of a tap on the street is considered to be riskier than drinking out of a water fountain inside a building (20 out of 50 vs. 7 out of 50 rated these two situations as high risk). Quality of drinking water has been in the news recently, with lead in water reported in Flint, MI and Newark, NJ.
People perceive risks differently. According to research in this area, risk perceptions are shaped by personal experiences, values and awareness of the harmful impact of similar situations on other people. Evaluation of risk is not always solely based on objective facts; rather people use both the experiential and analytical systems of thinking when making judgments about risks. This is an important lesson for the practitioners of risk management as it may be tempting to label this approach as irrational or biased. However, there is nothing irrational about it. We must acknowledge that this is a very natural, and human way of making sense of the world around us.
Feeling of risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception - Paul Slovic