Sampling risk and judging personal danger

We live in a dangerous world and we’ve learnt to judge risk as a way of avoiding loss or injury. How we make this appraisal is crucial to our survival and an innovative study published in December’s Risk and Analysis investigated what influences risk perception in everyday life and has shown that our retrospective estimations of risk are quite different from how we judge them at the time.

Many studies on the psychology of risk ask people to look back on past situations or judge risk for hypothetical or lab-based situations.

The trouble is, imaginary or lab-based situations may not be a good match to real-life (after all, what’s really the danger?) and our perceptions when looking back might be influenced by the outcome – perhaps we judge things as less risky if they turned out OK in the end.

One way of trying to get a handle on how people feel during the flow of everyday life is to use a method call ‘experience sampling’.

This usually involves giving participants a pager, an electronic diary or just sending them texts to their mobile phone.

Participants are alerted at random times during the day by whatever method is chosen and they’re asked to rate how they feel there and then, or as soon as safely possible (I discussed how this has been applied to psychotic experiences in a BPSRD article in 2006).

In this study, participants were asked to rate their mood, what activity they were doing, what is the worst consequence that could occur, how severe that consequence could be, how likely it is to happen and what would the risk be to their well-being.

Generally, risks were perceived to be short term in nature and involved “loss of time or materials” related to work and “physical damage”.

Interestingly, everyone rated the severity of risk as about the same, but women were more likely to think that the worst consequence was likely to occur.

Furthermore, the better the mood of the participants (both male and female), the less risky they thought their activity was.

As an additional part of the study, participants were asked to look back and re-assess some of the situations they rated on the spot. These ratings tended to be much lower, showing that people tend to judge things to be more risky ‘in the heat of the moment’.

Both of these findings demonstrate the importance of emotion in risk judgements, suggesting that it forms another source of information, along with more calculated rational estimates.

In fact, this is one of the key ideas behind understanding anxiety disorders.

Anxiety acts as an emotional risk warning, but it can get massively ‘out of synch’ with our rational judgements, so even when we ‘know’ that (for example) the risk of air travel is smaller than the risk of driving a car, ‘in the heat of the moment’, the information from our emotions overrides this in our judgement of risk in the form of anxiety.

Of course, risk perception in itself is an important topic to understand, particularly as risk judgements are the basis of safety decisions in many professions.

Link to PubMed abstract of paper.
pdf of full-text of paper.

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