Risky Business

Our perception of risk is a strange and flawed thing. Evolution has led us to a very tribal calculation of risk: What happens to the tribe could happen to us, so paying attention makes good survival sense. Our ideas of risk are based on the stories that we hear, which used to come primarily from people close to us, at least geographically. Now the stories we hear come from the global media, which is desperately skewed – not by any foul conspiracy, but by the need to make money.

These days if it bleeds, it leads. News stories come from all around the world, and of course we don’t hear about millions of children getting to school safely. We hear about the one child thousands of kilometres away who was snatched by a paedophile. The front page of a newspaper website will be filled with sensational tales of gory murders, gruesome kidnappings and horrendous road rage, gathered from around the world, and guaranteed to arouse excitement, indignation, and, above all, sales.

What’s more, the media gorges on the details of these cases day after day – so a single sensational incident may spend weeks headlining the news as individual details trickle out. Then they headline again when the case goes to court. Each new headline, every individual news story, reinforces the idea that the world is a dreadful, terrifying place, filled with psychopaths out to get us, and worse – targeting our children.

Today’s headlines in the Melbourne Age (in Australia), for example, include “Missing tour guide found dead in ‘hit-and-run’ after three days” – about an American woman in Tuscany. “A vicious, vile reign of terror has come to an end: pair caught after teen slain” – another American incident. Oh, and “Gunman opens fire near uni campus” – about a man who fired one shot, straight up into the air, and then drove off.  The implication of the headline is far more dramatic than the reality of the story.

danger sign

Similarly, common risks don’t get much media mileage. Car accidents often don’t make the news unless they are particularly horrific. Occasionally the road toll is reported, but they are impersonal & meaningless statistics, compared to the gripping drama of a kidnap victim, or missing child. Everyone knows the story of Madeleine McCann. No-one knows the story of Jane Do who was hit by a car and wound up a paraplegic or dead.

So we underplay the danger of, for example, driving while over-tired, or talking on the phone (hands-free or not makes little difference, in the few studies that have looked closely at the risk – it’s the distraction, not the device itself).

Headlines also cater to popular prejudice and misconceptions. Cycling has an image as an incredibly risky activity, despite studies that show that health benefits far outweigh the risks. Hundreds of people die in car accidents every year, in Victoria alone, yet a single accident involving a cyclist can make headlines for days, while the vast majority of deaths in car accidents go unreported.

At a recent talk on reptiles, the keeper at Ballarat Wildlife park pointed out that we are terrified of snakes, which cause on average 1.4 deaths per year. Yet we are not the slightest bit alarmed by Christmas trees which cause around 3 deaths per year (in Australia). I can’t verify these figures, but the point is valid nonetheless – our perception of risk can be wildly out of proportion to the actual likelihood of harm.

All these stories feed into our perception of risk in potent ways. Survival used to hinge on paying attention to what went on around us. Now we are paying attention to what goes on around the world – but only the gory, sensational, terrifying parts.

We can’t, of course, go around verifying risk statistics every time we do anything. Pausing to cross the road, our calculation of risk must be instinctive and rapid. But I think we would all benefit from a little more research and a lot more thought about the risks we take in our lives.

Australians on average live richer, safer and more privileged lives than ever before, yet at the same time we are jumping at shadows. We are frightened of strangers, refugees, bicycles and bugs. We teach our children to insulate themselves from the world, and hold themselves aloof from it for their own “protection”.  I have to wonder – at what cost?


4 thoughts on “Risky Business

  1. Joe

    Hear hear!

    But do please be cautious of the “1.4 deaths vs 3 deaths” error in risk assessment as well. Risk needs to be assessed per time (for leisure activities) or distance (for mode of travel) not by total instances. The common “more likely to die crossing the street” while useful as one perspective is also erroneous in assessing how dangerous it would be to participate in an activity.

    Just don’t go rock fishing. You’re safer (per time spent) going rock climbing or parachuting or riding a motor bike.

    1. lindamciver

      That’s an excellent point, Joe. So bike vs car deaths & injuries should be measured per km travelled, not total instance, for example.

    2. Andrew

      Of course, if you do go rock fishing take a motor bike with you for safety but you need the seatbelt so you don’t get washed off.

      Or fish for inland rocks…

  2. Joe


    But I don’t want to distract from a core point you make… your kids are vastly more likely to die in domestic accidents or SIDS or even that YOU (or your spouse) killed them than they are to be abducted by pedophiles on the street or similar “stranger danger” scenarios. And if you personally get into a threat or strife scenario it’ll almost certainly be someone you know personally in a passionate fit, not a stranger.

    I, too, get really ticked off with the exaggeration of personal risk hyped in media. It goes just slightly beyond merely trawling for a salable story in remote events that don’t represent personal risk. Papers sell more if you don’t feel safe, so nudging your free floating anxieties makes money.

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