Sometimes while driving to work I’ll see a wreck by the side of the road, and feel a moment of empathy, thinking, “that could’ve been me." But the moment passes, and I revert back to my usual level of casual carelessness, paying just enough attention to the road to stay out of trouble, for the most part.
It was moments like this that got me thinking about risk, and why it is that we seem to go out of our way to take crazy risks, while ignoring big risks all around us. When we are faced with big risks like climate change, heart disease, or financial collapses, we do our best to ignore them, but we are drawn to worry about risks like sharks and snakes that affect a handful of people. We shake in fear of public speaking, often the number one fear in surveys, while going out of our way to engage in risky sports like skydiving. Why? What are we afraid of?
All around us, every day, we deal with a host of risks large and small, and our responses are often out of whack with the world around us. We like to think that our intellect guides us through the world, calculating the odds various risks we face to find the best route through life, but this vision is at odds with how we really behave. While we do have a very useful intellect, we seldom use it this way. For the most part we make myriad decisions each day, moment by moment, guided by our feelings, instincts, and biology. For the most part we don’t think about risks, but feel our way around them, and our feelings about risks are from a different world we once lived in.
Humanity evolved over the last few million years in Eastern Africa, in a world in which we faced very different risks. The big risks ancient humanity faced were predators, starvation and disease, not computer viruses. Those who survived those ancient risks are our ancestors, passing their risk-dodging genes and biology on to us. Those who failed to dodge those risks left nothing more than fossils.
These tools we evolved worked phenomenally well at dealing with the risks ancient humans faced, with our upright stance, big brains, binocular vision, language skills, social nature, and fine motor skills allowing us to not just survive, but thrive. We succeeded so spectacularly that humans developed complex technological societies and proliferated to a population of 7 billion, reshaping our planet along the way. The risks we faced throughout human evolution, the risks that shaped our evolution, are no longer there, for the most part. Rather than facing predators, we now deal with long term consequences of fast food, white collar crime, and modern marketing. The tools that helped our ancestors to survive in the ancient world are poorly suited to the risks of the modern world, leaving us to struggle our way through.
Putting this all together, I wrote The Real Story of Risk, exploring our quirky, frustrating, bewildering, and wondrous responses to risks we face in the modern world. It’s a story stretching from Homo erectus facing hyenas on the plains of Africa to Homo sapiens in Manhattan, dodging cabs and getting creamed by mortgage-backed securities. It’s a story of humanity, evolved to be highly adaptable in a changing world, and creating a new era of climate change we are scarcely suited to handle. It’s the story of Jill the cave diver, Krishna the shark attack survivor, Dan the control freak, and Roberta the naked skydiver. It’s a story of love, death, snakes, conspiracy theories, con men, rising seas, hurricanes, earthquakes, and crossing the street. It’s the story of us.
I hope it’s not giving away the ending to say that at the end of the day the solution to our warped sense of risk is not to avoid all risks. This is not possible, or even advisable. But it is advisable to better understand how we deal with the risks we face, and hopefully do a better job at it as a result.
Glenn Croston is the author of “The Real Story of Risk”, exploring the warped world we see through the eyes of risk. He is also the author of “Gifts from the Train Station”, telling the inspiring stories of brave people working for the greater good and healing their lives, and “75 Green Businesses”, describing opportunities for almost anyone to build a great business that makes a positive difference in the world.