Drawing blanks on risks

The general risk perception of the public to cycling appears to be typically ‘talking up’ the risks that cyclists pose to someone else in relation to other risks surrounding us. For cycling organisations it has proved unsuccessful to get across the objectively low risk rating that the activity of cycling  enjoys. What is it about risk that makes us see red, sense or none of it?

Risk? Simple! Explained by Russian Roulette. But risk perception? Or comparing risks of different actions and activities? These may be propositions that prove difficult to handle for the human psyche.

The human mind has difficulties quantifying, conceptualising and qualifying matters relating to risk. This section from Paul Slovic’s seminal paper from 1987, shows how interwoven risk perception is with ‘life and everything else’. Risk perception is not about risk at all, it’s in fact as much about personal experience, social conditioning, norming etc as you can possibly shake a stick at:

A major development in [psychological research on risk perception] has been the discovery of a set of mental strategies, or heuristics, that people employ in order to make sense out of an uncertain world (1). Although these rules are valid in some circumstances, in others they lead to large and existent biases, with serious implications for risk assessment. In particular, laboratory research on basic perceptions and cognitions has shown that difficulties in understanding probabilistic processes, biased media coverage, misleading personal experiences, and the anxieties generated by life’s gambles cause uncertainty to be denied, risks to be misjudged (sometimes overestimated and sometimes underestimated), and judgments of fact to be held with unwarranted confidence.

Experts’ judgments appear to be prone to many of the same biases as those of the general public, particularly when experts are forced to go beyond the limits of available data and rely on intuition (1, 2).

Research further indicates that disagreements about risk should not be expected to evaporate in the presence of evidence. Strong initial views are resistant to change because they influence the way that subsequent information is interpreted. New evidence appears reliable and informative if it is consistent with one’s initial beliefs; contrary evidence tends to be dismissed as unreliable, erroneous, or unrepresentative (3). When people lack strong prior opinions, the opposite situation exists – they are at the mercy of the problem formulation. Presenting the same information about risk in different ways (for example, mortality rates as opposed to survival rates) alters people’s perspectives and actions (4).

Whereas psychometric research implies that risk debates are not merely about risk statistics, some sociological and anthropological research implies that some of these debates may not even be about risk (5, 6). Risk concerns may provide a rationale for actions taken on other grounds or they may be a surrogate for other social or ideological concerns. When this is the case, communication about risk is simply irrelevant to the discussion. Hidden agendas need to be brought to the surface for discussion (7).

Perhaps the most important message from this research is that there is wisdom as well as error in public attitudes and perceptions. Lay people sometimes lack certain information about hazards. However, their basic conceptualization of risk is much richer than that of the experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments. As a result, risk communication and risk management efforts are destined to fail unless they are structured as a two-way process. Each side, expert and public, has something valid to contribute. Each side must respect the insights and intelligence of the other.

1. D. Kahneman, P. Slovic, A. Tversky, Eds. Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Bias (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1982)
2. M. Henrion and B. Fischhoff, Am. J. Phys., in press
3. R. Nisbett and L. Ross, Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1980)
4. A. Tversky and D. Kahneman, Scence 211, 453 (1981)
5. J. F. Short, Jr., Am. Sociol. Rev. 49, 711 (1984)
6. M. Douglas and A. Wildavsky, Risk and Culture (Univ. of California Press)
7. W. Edwards and D. von Winterfeldt, Risk Anal., in press

We, most literally, have simply no idea when it comes to risk. In some instances we may be risk-blind, in others we amplify risk, chance or scale beyond any statistics and numerically established levels.

This has also been confirmed by the endless logging of cognitive biases identified over the decades – some relating to risk and risk perception. Tversky and Kahneman [pdf] started thinking and writing about this in the 1970s.

Talking risk publicly, is a minefield with hidden mind traps, pitfalls and secret doors to swing open when you least expect them to. The important thing seems to be awareness of being human and that we err. These intense human errors warrant a much deeper and humanly discussion to resolve differences in angle, position, scale, standpoint and suitability.

Talking risk in our (increasingly) litigious society sets off a few more explosions. As an upshot perhaps it’s insurance companies who know most about ‘real risk’ than anyone else. Knowing the above, however, should alter the strategies employed by (cycling) organisations to communicate about cycling and risk. One would be to establish a more interactive and sympathetic process with the public – listening to why people do and say things.

5 thoughts on “Drawing blanks on risks

  1. Many thanks for bringing this, and, in earlier posts, other studies, off the library shelves. In the present case, the statement “Lay people sometimes lack certain information about hazards.” jumps out at me. Here’s how such information is imparted in Japan (well, in one primary school about 40 km N of central Tokyo)

    The main story arc is of a small boy who is having trouble picking up riding, but wants to cycle the 5 km (yes 5 km!) to school at the start of next term (as most of his classmates will). His mother is worried. But look at the organization and structures that are in place to alleviate both the hazards and the concerns. Before actually riding to school at the beginning of term there are off-road classes on mini-roads and on-road practice runs (though when i say on-road I mean on a lot of shared use footways). At the end we see the mother waiting anxiously for the boy’s return. She’s relieved that he is safe. But she then goes on to ask him “Every day, yes?”

    So I don’t know about “communicating” about risk – this lay person would rather see concrete strategies for tackling the concerns, as per the video. But at another level, the very fact that such a video is published by and for a Japanese audience; whereas the Sustrans one from New Malden of a while back showd *one* father accomanying *one* boy for just over a kilometer to school and we’re supposed to be impressed/willing to emulate, while your colleagues can only demonstrate how horrible it is in a part of Newcastle, speaks volumes. Maybe the academics would prefer to discuss that “deep” level instead of setting up bike trains, chalking road layouts on car parks and the like to get their and their colleagues kids to and from school. Now the summer hols are coming up, what better time to get a few practice runs going? The cycling orgnaizations don’t really have the manpower. Catch 22?


    1. Fascination video. Your explanation of the story certainly helped. I’ve a couple of questions: 1. Are the helmets for cycling or to travel in general? I noticed children wearing them for walking and even to travelling by bus at one point in the film. 2. Is that typical quality for cycling infra in Japan ? The traffic didn’t seem far away, walking sections of the route were less than optimal, but it seemed that there is a reasonable grid. In some ways it reminded me of Norway (crossing like pedestrians).


  2. I think, and I was trying to describe in the article, that communicating about cycle risks is an ill-fated undertaking right from the start. It’s the wong disucssion, the wrong focus altogether. The other person will just blank as it’s too far apart with their experience and perception. It should actually not be about talking about risk at all. It’s about listening, and understanding the other’s viewpoint, without imposing “risk statistics” and hence riksing to patronisingly drown them in drivel =)


    1. I agree. In fact, I wrote much the same a while back. Many people are co fused by statistics more than they are enlightened by them – and in any case it’s the subjective experience which shapes what risks people are willing to take, not numbers in dusty books or spreadsheets which they are likely never to have read. So we can tell people who do not cycle that cycling is safe all we want. It won’t make more than a few take up cycling.


  3. I find it useful to determine whether you are talking abiout hazard or risk in many exchanges, and the needd to use these in the hirarchy of risk management. In terms of road risk I’ve a basic table which I’m sure can be improved.
    1) Eliminate hazard altogether (NOT always total segregation – can be elimination of conflicting move such as left turn by a barrier which completely prevents this, or alternative route)
    2) Manage by physical deterrence – eg fully gated level crossing will damage you/your vehicle if you try to cross against barriers
    3) Manage by signalled prioity – yes Bow roundabout is safe … as long as every road user precisely observes traffic signals (doh!)
    4) Manage by signed priority or direction – oh aren’t painted cycle lanes great! Success in quantity (km) but not quality perhaps
    5) Manage by basic inherited systems* – developed over 2.3bn years of trials by which those with flawed systems did not reproduce

    * When using the road the key to survival has to include the use of 3 key pieces of safety equipment, which all people normally have and usually cost nothing to acquire (but occasionally need additional accesories to deal with reduced performance of the core equipment for various reasons).
    Eyes up to 20mph with a coverage of a third of the things going on around you and a direct fast streamingf this data in a language independent and faster than reading or talking delivery and decision making.
    Ears – the 360 degree back–up covering what the eyes cannot see and prompting the re-focussing of eyes on the immediate danger
    Brain – to be able to rapidly review and determine action with the experience of life and own body capabilities often setting the decision framework (do I run or stop to avoid this approaching danger?)


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