July 10, 2012
Twenty years ago, Ulrich Beck, in his ground-breaking book, Risk Society, observed how rising technological advances would lead to increased risk aversion. I don’t think he had expected the scope of this reaction to modernity, the new roles taken on by regulators and social actors or the degree of public rage toward risks. This is the first part in my summer “back to basics” series on the nature of risk-taking and risk management where I plan to assess how our perception of risks has influenced the way we are organising our societies. This first blog is on why we dread risks so much?
Risk-taking is ubiquitous. From the moment we wake up and put our feet on the floor, we embark on a series of risk management decisions that define our day, our well-being and our identity. What to eat, where to go, what to wear … these decisions are based on risk management processes that most times we barely notice. Every benefit that we identify comes with a risk that must in some way be managed, although most assessments are fairly easy and painless. We knowingly and willingly take risks as well, whether it involves injecting Botox (a toxin based on botulism) into our faces or trying new diet fads that could offer anything but a balanced diet. Benefits rule our risk decisions.
What is it about the nature of risk then that makes it such a nasty term, one that Peter Sandman would say, causes such outrage? Is it the uncertainty of our decisions or activities that leave us feeling vulnerable (food risks, health affects, physical limitations …)? Is it the loss of control in the decision-making process, leaving us at the mercy of the motives and interests of our authorities? Is it the complexity of the technology around us that frustrates and alienates us (leading to a nostalgia towards what some perceive as easier times). All of these play a role in what I could call “risk rage”, but I think there is something a little more malicious at play here.
Nobody likes to take risks, so where we can reduce our exposure or the perception that we are taking risks, the happier we will be. This is not lost on authorities and stakeholders who play on our vulnerabilities, promising us risk-free benefits that we willing accept. But when we discover that these promises are deceptions, this causes us to become even more disenchanted with risk taking. For example:
- Our governments promise us a certain high quality of life, without telling us the costs, in cities that cannot pay the price or protect us, thus leaving us feeling more at risk.
- Researchers develop diet pills or interventions that are supposed to solve our obesity epidemic, but in the end lead to other complications or side effects (and still we gain weight).
- Companies develop seed technologies that they promise will make food healthier, safer, more abundant and more enriched. What we got was more expensive food and further uncertainty.
- Environmental NGOs promise us that if we adopt more sustainable practices, we will defeat global warming and defend biodiversity. I think we all know how that story ends (with further requests for more donations).
- In the 1970s, the nuclear industry had promised energy that would be so abundant that it would be too cheap to bother metering (reality: it got more expensive). We see similar deceptive promises from advocates of renewable energy today, and sure enough, costs are going up.
- We were promised by banks and realtors that the house we bought would continue to go up in value. As we are losing our retirement savings, it should not be any surprise that even financial risk-taking is seen as unacceptable.
Risk has become a four-letter word because we had been promised things (benefits) that were never delivered upon or came with a much higher risk ratio than we had perceived. Risk-taking is based on trust, and any series of deceptions have left us in a state of trust deficiency (and hence, risk aversion). As we don’t take risks with people we don’t trust or with institutions we don’t find credible, and as there is little today that we do trust, this increased risk rage should not come as a surprise.
So the best way to address the threat of being in an increasingly risk averse (and yet technologically dependent) society is to stop promising people risk-free benefits. This is advice that the nanotech researchers, for example, should heed (especially as we are now beginning to feel more comfortable accepting the risks of the science of the small). Don’t follow the route of biotech two decades earlier by promising to change the world, eg, with new medical applications, lightweight fabrics or scratch resistant coatings, and in the end, only delivering on products like socks that ensure that our feet don’t stink. People remember promises you make.
We should stop treating people as naïve or incapable of understanding the nature of risks and benefits. A patient in a hospital understands that beneath the desired benefit (wellness) are certain risks and we should afford them the maturity to tell them the truth. A person should understand that they are also responsible for the quality of their living standards, health and well-being and authorities or companies should not try to sugar-coat it for them. We are too worried about not telling people what we think they want to hear, we don’t realise that lying to them only further erodes the trust situation.
In my next back to basics risk blog, I would like to look at the role trust plays in the risk-taking process, how it is undermined and what can be done to restore it.David Zaruk