In which we are not brave

risk1

Just occasionally we all come across books that change the way we think. Which is why I spend so much time recommending Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, by New York Times journalist Dan Gardner. What did it teach me? That we are, as a species, incredibly bad at predicting what is risky and what isn’t. Our inability to regulate our risk appetite can be catastrophic. Most of us would like to play it safe, but unfortunately we really don’t know what safe is.

When it comes to assessing risk, we are locked in a constant battle between our intellect and our gut instinct. And gut instinct often wins. How often have you been told ‘go with your gut’? But gut instinct is often wrong. What was a sensible decision-making tool when we were hunting deer on the plains of the Serengeti or wherever  (my Geography is rubbish before you point out to me that the Serengeti doesn’t have plains. Or deer. Or does it?), doesn’t always work in a busy London street.

Gardner’s favourite example of this is the fact that after the World Trade Centre attacks, thousands of American citizens decided not to fly due to the fear of terrorism. The result? The number of people  that died on the roads went up by more than the number who died in the attacks themselves, in the months following September 11. Air travel was still the safest way to get from A to B, but fear skewed everyone’s decision making.

As a financial journalist, I see all the time how our poor risk appetite affects how we manage our money. We consistently underestimate our life expectancy, overestimate the pain of loss and underestimate the role of speculation in financial gain. In our attempts to keep our money safe we often lose it (to creeping inflation) and are chronically unable to cut our losses, even though it would be the ‘safest’ thing to do.

But (wake up, you at the back) what has all this got to do with our trip? A lot of people have described our decision to go away as ‘brave’ recently. They’ve said it admiringly, they’ve said it disapprovingly, and they’ve said it just because they can’t really think of anything else to say. But whatever the reason they have for saying it, they’re wrong. We’re not brave at all. All we have is a slightly differently calibrated risk appetite.

My sister (hello, Bel) dissolved into hysterical laughter the other day when I described myself as ‘risk averse’, but I’d still argue we’re far from happy-go-lucky. In recent months I’ve thought about risk as never before. I’ve researched the safety record of various train systems and airlines. I’ve done a First Aid course. We’ve made a will and taken out some pretty hefty insurance, we’ve all been jabbed to within an inch of our lives to protect against nasties from Japanese encephalitis to Hepatitis B.

Because when you plan a trip like this, you have to face up to the risks you take in a way you don’t in day to day life. Do hire cars in India have rear seatbelts? Will a boat down the Mekong have life jackets? What will we do if the children get lost? What about the school places? How will we pay the mortgage? In short, I’ve never been so safety conscious in all my life – much of which I spend wandering at the side of busy roads with small children without a second thought.

I remember one glorious morning in Mexico, when Daisy was a baby and all of our friends at home in London were worrying about us taking her to live in such a dangerous country. I walked down to my language class, only to discover there had been an item on the news the night before about a spate of teenage stabbings in London. My teachers were borderline hysterical in a thoroughly Latin American way about the whole thing, begging and pleading with me never to be irresponsible enough to take Daisy back to London.

Since then, I’ve tried to see how my upbringing, cultural perceptions and media consumption affect my risk assessments, though I’m not really sure its made me any better at them. And when people say ‘brave’, do they really mean foolish? One man’s dream trip is another’s nerve inducing nightmare, after all.

Sorry, we really will get onto the juicy travelling stuff soon. Rather like the audience in Shakespeare in Love, I know you’d all prefer “love, and a bit with a dog” to my pontification about behavioural finance. Or perhaps love and a bit with a giant iguana. Not long now, I promise.

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