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Risky Business: How Our Brains Assess Reward and Consequence

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Many people are afraid of flying. And really, why shouldn’t they be? Climbing into a pressurized metal tube that soars thousands of meters into the air at hundreds of kilometres per hour powered by explosive fuel sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Ask anyone who has a fear of flying and they will cite the above factors, and draw a seemingly logical conclusion from them: if you climb in a plane, it’s possible you will die in a plane crash.

For some, that outcome isn’t just possible; they consider it likely. These individuals then climb into a car, truck, or SUV—a vehicle that is thousands of times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash—and drive away.

It may seem strange that so many people are more afraid of flying than they are of driving even though every statistic tells us we should feel the opposite.

According to statistics gathered over decades, your odds of being in a fatal plane crash are roughly 1 in 9821. Compare this to your odds of being in a fatal traffic collision, which is 1 in 114. It isn’t even comparable.

Yet when this fact is explained to someone who is firmly afraid of flying, it doesn’t seem to matter. The perception that flight is more dangerous may remain, and it may be just as strong.

This is not to draw attention to people who have an honest fear of flying.

It does, however, bring up some interesting questions. Why do we sometimes become afraid of outcomes which are so unlikely? Why do we sometimes not seem to realize certain activities are risky when they actually are?

And most interesting, what happens inside us when we attempt to assess how likely a bad outcome is for the things we’re thinking of doing?

When professionals like scientists, public health experts, and economists want to determine how likely it is that an event will have a dangerous result, they use a variety of methods to find out. They may look at statistics they’ve already gathered, they may engage in new research, or they may request data from manufacturers, doctors, or others in the field they are exploring.

Complex processes are used to assess possible dangers and benefits, and these results can then help inform public policy. This is one of the reasons why smoking isn’t allowed in public spaces; the assessment of the data shows that there is too much risk involved.

Risk assessment isn’t just for professionals, though. We’re all doing it. And we’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve been on this earth.

In the field of psychology, this is referred to as risk perception: the process our brains undertake in order to determine the likelihood of a negative outcome from any given course of action.

Risk perception relies on factors such as cognitive processes (how we think), previous experience, available information, and observation. Like any good scientist, we gather the data and make an assessment of how risky an activity is—and based on that assessment, we decide whether or not we will do it.

However, our own risk perception process can run into some serious snags… and we might not be aware of these snags if we don’t have scientific data to compare them to.

A famous psychological study in 1978 found that people tend to overestimate the risk of events that are unlikely to occur, and underestimate the risk of events that are in fact much more likely to occur. This study suggested, and later studies confirmed, that our brain’s ability to engage in accurate risk perception can be impacted by unrelated factors.

1. Personality traits. Individuals who gravitate towards risky activities for fun or pleasure generally consider the associated risks to be less likely than they actually are.

2. Emotion. If an individual fears an activity or event, they generally perceive the associated risks to be likely.

3. Cognitive biases. Our brains use mental shortcuts to come to conclusions, which can result in those conclusions being arrived at incorrectly. This is especially relevant with availability bias, which is when information that is easy to think of or recall is given greater importance than new information; this makes it harder for us to change our opinions when presented with new data.

4. Degree of understanding. The lower our understanding of an activity or field of study, the less likely we are to accurately assess how dangerous it is.

5. Perceived reward. If people experience pleasure from an activity (such as smoking), they are more likely to perceive the risks as low.

(A quick note about teenage brains and risk perception: during adolescence, our brains become heavily biased towards assessing risks as “low” and assessing the rewards from those same activities as “high.” In 15 years of working with adolescents, I have explained this to parents literally hundreds of times. This bias tends to correct as we get older, so don’t worry. It gets better.)

Influence from the world and culture around us can also contribute to incorrect risk perception. If the media you consume includes depictions of activities that appear risky, you may be less inclined to engage in them later. Few people would choose to watch the 1994 Keanu Reeves film Speed immediately before going on a long bus trip, for instance.

In the same way, bias in the media we choose to give weight to can contribute to an inaccurate perception of risk.

One example of how this has become especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the increased risk of blood clots from certain COVID vaccines became known, many people pointed to this as a reason not to get the vaccine. For these people, the risk of getting a blood clot was deemed to be too high.

However, as experts were quick to point out, the risk of the vaccine causing a blood clot was only between 1 in 250,000 to 500,000. The data also shows that about 1 in 100 COVID-19 patients developed blood clots, and for those COVID patients who were admitted to hospital the risk rose to 1 in 20.1

This is just one example during the pandemic where unlikely events related to vaccines and public health orders were assessed by some to be too risky, when the data clearly told a different story.

While it isn’t possible to completely avoid all risks, it is possible to get better at assessing them—and there are two steps we can take to improve our risk perception.

The first is to seek out experts. Not just the professionals who are saying what we want to hear. We need to look for the independently verified, acknowledged experts on the subjects we are studying.

The second is to know ourselves—to know our fears, our biases, and most importantly our limitations. This will help us to be more receptive to information that challenges our beliefs. And it may help us understand why we fear certain things in the first place.

For more information

1 Mia Rabson, “Doctors Say Getting COVID-19 Poses Much Bigger Risk of Blood Clots,” CTV News. March 19, 2021 (https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/doctors-say-getting-covid-19-poses-much-bigger-risk-of-blood-clots-1.5353995).

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