The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.

This provocative notion from Goethe, combined with an accident while cycling, led me to ask: 

Does the nature of risk elude us more often than not, and if so, what are the consequences? 

In conversation with friends, family and people met on the road, I have received mostly unqualified support for my long distance bicycle tour. However I have also received varied dire warnings. A slight raising of the eyebrows, vague descriptions of robbings, bombings, kidnappngs, attacks by wild animals, lunatic road users and myriad other possibilities. 

The Hypothesis 

The human mind has evolved in a way which does not intuitively deal with risk, and more generally probability, in an accurate manner.

An Example 

Many people fear a terrorist attack. The images of 9'11 and 7'7 remain vivid and we might suppose from the national policies of the US and on a smaller scale the UK that the risk is sufficient to warrant the spending of trillions and billion of pounds respectively to mitigate.

"in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist."

This is before we even consider and compare against the really common place risks such as heart disease, suicide and cancer.

The more sensible among us may eat a balanced diet, see a psychologist and quit smoking. Yet few people are consumed by fear when starting their Volvos, filled with an irrational hatred of butter, pay much attention to their mental health, or lie in bed with images of imperfectly replicated cells running through their minds.

A cherry picked academic survey 

The academic literature bears this out.

"Risk judgments appear to be highly influenced by the memorability of the past event and imaginability of the future threat. recent disasters with heavy media coverage can seriously distort the public (and individuals) perception of risk." (Slovic, Beyond Numbers, 1991)

"Risks from dramatic or sensational causes eg. accidents, homicides, natural disasters tend to be greatly overestimated." (Morgan and colleagues 1983)

Indeed we may assume therefore that the media coverage itself of such events is biased by the same psychological process. That is to say that the very fact such events are considered more newsworthy is revealing.

We might speculate that from an evolutionary stand point such an over reaction to inherently exceptional risks was a useful means of internalising non-common place events in the mind of our ancestors. Those individuals most able to recall, fear, and mitigate the risks posed by these occasional disasters may have had an advantage in passing on their genetic material.

Such a process poses a problem today for individuals and groups who wish to respond rationally to the risks we face every morning. But perhaps the hard truth is that at some level we don't really want to respond rationally. The fundamentally uncertain nature of our existence is perhaps too burdensome a reality to carry around with us.

Doubt is not a pleasant condition...

Indeed it has been found that "In order to reduce anxiety people tend to deny uncertainty by making the risk either seem so small as to be ignorable or so large as to clearly need avoidance." (Lichenstein 1983)

The very nature of probability, that an event may or may not occur, is one which the human mind seems unwilling to embrace. 

 We crave certainty. 

"... but certainty is absurd" - Voltaire

If the human condition tends to minimise common-place risks regardless of scale and maximise dramatic, memorable and imaginable risks then clearly this psychological phenomena has implications for the way we organise ourselves as a society. Modern risk management techniques and the application of mathematics to cut through our human misconceptions represent our response to such deficiencies. 

Unfortunately, watching as rational approaches are ignored or distorted by sensationalist headlines claiming fruit causes cancer to sell papers or by manipulative politicians using our inbuilt over-reactions to the dramatic and scary for their own ends is a depressing constant.

This leaves the individual in a quandary;. We can't all become qualified risk analysts. Even if we could we cannot realistically apply such rigorous analysis to day-to-day decision making and the general minutiae which makes up a life.

So what to do? 

Conclusion - life is a risky business

It is important that we don't exaggerate the issue. 

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. – Vincent van Gogh 

Clearly humanity is not paralysed by our current risk assessments. But I find it intriguing to speculate on the potential ramifications of our inaccurate appraisals, especially at a personal level. The everyday risk of being 'stuck in a rut' just like that of being knocked over by a bus may be minimised to non-existence. By contrast the 'dangers' inherent in starting a new job or quitting an old relationship may be magnified, just like the risk of being murdered or being blown up are. 

Perhaps the aphorism "better the devil you know" reveals our inbuilt failings as assessors of our own lives risks.

Our underestimation of the commonplace risks and overestimation of new ones may have become a bigger problem as modernity reveals through scientific inquiry (and communicates more rapidly via global instantaneous media) a plethora of old and new risks. Indeed, if Ulrich Beck's Risk Society thesis holds, those new risks and uncertainties may be growing all the time. Certainly our access to them appears to be.

Marsh-McLennan 1978), which summarizes results of a public opinion survey of twenty years ago. shows that most people seem to believe that life was becoming more dangerous, even though most objective measures show the contrary to be true.

It is at once comforting to realise that the big terrors which seemingly surround us are in fact vanishingly unlikely to cause us harm and distressing to contemplate that the mundane features of everyday existence very well may.

Accepting this fact and consciously modifying our perception of the risks posed by change can be liberating in the extreme.

Security is mostly a superstition. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. - Helen Keller

mbracing this opens a world of opportunity and, it seems to me, demands a forthright rejection of immobility.

Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing. – Denis Waitley

For me personally, vegetating in the happy safety of a comfortable job, nice flat and sedentary life was the root of the real risks posed. I was far more likely to suffer at the hands of clogged arteries from sitting on my behind all day than from the myriad of dangerous scenarios one might conjure up for a solo-traveler.   

Isn't then adventure the only sane response? 

Throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – Mark Twain

It was for me.  

Every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau 

Moreover must we not also compare the quality of the risks faced? The chance of being hit by a bus on the way to work vs a crash in Alps; of being struck down by uncaring disease, of slit wrists and self doubt vs the great unknown's manifest uncertainties.

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. – Andre Gide


  1. Hey, came here from reddit, I enjoyed the post!

    The effect recency has on risk perception is especially interesting, and the associated disproportionate response to terrorism is a good example of it in action. I also think there's some aspect of accountability in there - get blown up by a terrorist? Wrong place, wrong time. Nothing you can do to predict it or avoid it, really. Slip in the bathtub and crack your head? While obviously that's terrible luck, there's more tangible 'fault' in this instance. So strangely, it seems people are good at ignoring the unlikely risks they have control over, and becoming fixated on the unlikely risks they don't.

    I like the notion that adventure is the only sane response. Another justification for an excellent and appealing lifestyle!

    Again, thanks for a good post. I'm working on a similar travel/thoughts blog, with a bike tour in Canada about to start. Check it out if you like :)

  2. this was a nice post, I also came from reddit and definetely, people is overreacting to imaginary risks today, risks that may be real, yes, but not more common that getting hit by bus during the daily commute.

    thanks for the post, definetely something I will link to my friends when they friendly remind me of all the risks I will take next year when I start touring through south america.


  3. Hi,
    I've been thinking a great deal about our perception of risk lately so I found your post very interesting. I have been frustrated by people telling me I shouldn't ride or go on hikes alone because I am a woman. In fact, recently I was told I was stupid to take these risks. It just happened to be by a male who chose to ride every day on a dangerous road to go to work and whom had an accident himself. I have had ongoing problems with depression and I really feel that the risk of suicidal thoughts and heart disease for me are much higher than the chance of being killed by a creepy character on one of my hikes. The risk of mental illness is quite high in our community as well as the risks of car accidents and yet we frighten people off enjoying nature, something which is more likely to improve and mental and physical health. As a woman I am very frustrated at being told I shouldn't take risks by going solo. It's as though I am being irresponsible and if I am attacked, it is partly my fault. I am more at risk driving to the shops. Thanks for the great read. Jane

    1. Thanks for sharing Jane. I had never thought about similarity to victim blaming, for example in rape, and the implied accusation of culpability levied by those warning against perceived risky behavior. "Don't walk down that alley!" Now if you do and get attacked it'll be your own incautious fault.

      Now clearly we need to distinguish between the sincerely meant and accurate assesment, the sincerely meant but faulty and the insincere warning.

      The first must be seriously considered, risk - reward compared and thanks given to the advisor for their help. My cousin, is photographer who has spent a lot of time in war zones and he warned me about the dangers in Yemen. I still wanted to go but his advise was welcome and helped me think through my options.

      The second tend to be from those who love you and will worry interminably about your well being and as a result their risk assessment is compromised. Here of course one must try to alleviate their fears while not impinging on your own liberty. Gloriously - just through the act of doing and not dying you help this caring worrier reassess their fearfulness.

      The later Jane are fortunately not commonplace. Their warnings are an opportunity to trot out glibly held prejudice or to put you down. "Oh don't go to Albania their all thieves." "What are you doing? You can't go that way you'll get yourself killed"

      It can be very threatening to some people to have unconventional experiments in living thrust in their faces. It can feel like a veiled criticism of their lifestyle. Especially if the experiment emphasizes liberty. Some people like to control, to have rules, to explain their limitations with words like impossible.

      All you can do is laugh Jane. Shrug off the doom mongers and laugh with joy at fresh air and freedom.

      ps. One of the reasons I set off on my tour was because I too was struggling with depression. It wasn't a pancea but It was a good decision for me in this respect.