Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Risky Business

It's funny, but we humans have a poor grasp of risk. This is worth noting in an era of extreme sports, car surfing, living on the edge, and so forth. We say that we understand the risks we undertake. But I do not think that is so.

Listening in on cycling forums, especially mtn biking ones, gives us a clue. A few weeks ago witnessed a terrible tragedy in Moab, Utah. A family started out riding the trails there, and the day ended with a 15 year old daughter dead, and other family members hospitalized.

I read about this on a forum, and the responses were telling. The first were cold and heartless, focusing on the supposed lack of preparation, the stupidty of being out there, one poster even nominating the family for the Darwin awards.

This is important because it focuses on the idea that risk can be contained. Many of these folks don't see themselves as statistics. The dangers of mountain biking, rock climbing, back flipping on dirt jumps, and so on are contained because these riders have the skills, the experience, the preparation to avoid having these things happen to them.

Then it turned out, horribly, that the father was one of the forum's regular posters. Further, he was one of the most safety conscious of the forum. He was one of the most experienced of riders, and had taken his family on plenty of trips. In short, the whole family was experienced, and certainly prepared. They knew what they were getting into.

The forum talk predictably turned toward consolation, and sympathies. As it should have. Knowing that the rider would have been experienced and prepared meant that folks had to switch to their second line of reasoning. "Well, at least she died doing something she loved." Ppl know there are risks to these things, and sometimes bad things happen.

But do you think that kid feels that way? Do you think the parents feel that way? I don't know and won't presume to speak for them, but I can imagine that a shorter ride seems like a better idea in hindsight.

It is a terrible tragedy, and my heart goes out to the family. They do make an interesting example because the line of reasoning among the other riders was so clear:

1) Idiots shouldn't do it.
2) If something bad happens, they died doing what they loved.

But after the fact, is that true? I don't know but I sure do wonder.

It seems clear that this line of reasoning mentally deflects a scary-as-hell truth. The best sailors go down. The best climbers freeze atop. The most prepared riders run out of water and dehydrate in the desert. The most conservative road riders get hit.

And in truth, the father's story read just like a sailing disaster. One thing happened. While that could be dealt with, it threw the rest of the system off a little. Which led to another thing. Then another. Until tragedy was staring them in the face. No system is so robust as to be failproof. But many systems are good enough most of the time.

Now, in the realm of risk awareness I do a class exercise. Ask who knows someone killed in 911. A couple hands will go up (here in the midwest). Who knows someone who had West Nile disease. A couple hands go up.

Here's the kicker. Ask who knows someone who has died in a car wreck. 70% will go up. Ask if you know more than one person, put both hands up. And suddenly the classroom is a forest of outstretched arms.

Then I ask them "So what do you really need to worry about?"

1 comment:

Michael said...

Emailed to me from another sociologist on the web:

Michael, I'm probably the least risk-taking person on earth -- at least when it comes to physical risk. (I am a lot bolder about challenging other people in ways that may offend and win me some negative sanctions.) And, like you, I have a hard time understanding people who have a real craving for danger. There's a wonderful book, though, called The Dangerous Edge by Apter. I think it partly explains the variation between individuals and even between occasions for the same person. People who don't get their quota of adrenaline feel bored. There's a gene, you know -- the Dopamine Receptor number D4 -- that in its aberrant form makes a person crave sensations and thrills. I have a friend who's a war correspondent and when she came back to Moscow after covering the war in Chechnya, she fell into a prolonged depression that was relieved only by taking sky-diving lessons. To each his own!