Who Can You Trust When Making Risky Choices?

Good choices require both expert advice and input from those who love us.

Posted Dec 18, 2020

Pexels/PIxabay
Source: Pexels/PIxabay

Being alive is a risky business. Getting out of bed in the morning, making your coffee, taking a shower—none of these activities is guaranteed to be 100% accident-proof. And that’s before you get behind the wheel of your car. But of course, staying in bed, not eating breakfast, and never washing carry risks of their own, not least to our mental health. So there’s no getting around it: We have to make choices about which risks we can tolerate, and which we cannot.

During the pandemic, the riskiness of everyday life has been magnified and become impossible to ignore. Some of us have more options than others, perhaps to work from home, avoid crowded public transport, or shop online. But we all face daily decisions about which risks to incur, and one thing that makes this tougher is that we need to trust others to help us decide.

Decisions about risk require two kinds of input. We need factual information about how safe or dangerous various activities are, about the possible consequences if things go wrong, and about how likely these are. But we also need to make value judgments about what level of risk is acceptable to us. These value judgments aren’t just facts that we can Google, they reflect our personal priorities and attitudes to life. And they differ from person to person.

For example, some people positively enjoy the risks involved with adventure sports such as rock climbing or skiing. Taking those risks – skilfully managing danger – is part of what makes life worth living for them. Other, more cautious souls simply find that level of risk stressful and unpleasant, even if they do have the capacity to control it. And there’s no right or wrong about this: We can’t say that one group of people is simply mistaken about what is valuable in life.

Likewise, different people make different tradeoffs between the short-term pleasures of eating rich foods or drinking alcohol, and the longer-term risks to health which those pleasures incur.  Extreme attitudes in this area – complete austerity, or completely uncontrolled consumption – can seem unreasonable. But there are lots of different ways to strike a balance in the middle, and again different people can sensibly make different choices. 

This dual input – facts and value judgments – can be confusing when we need to trust others for advice about risk. It’s hard to tell whether we’re getting merely factual information from experts and friends, or whether they are also advising us about which choices are ‘too risky’, ‘dangerous’, ‘reckless’, ‘over-cautious’, and so on. We’re all prone to passing on our value judgments, whether we realise it or not, and in fact, sharing these can be a good way for all of us to reflect on what matters to us – we develop our thinking in the light of our communities.

Who can we trust to help us decide what risks to take? We need reliable sources of factual information — for example, about the relative risks of meeting friends indoors or outdoors during the pandemic, or the safety statistics for different cars, or the health risks of eating certain foods.  This information is best sourced from scientists, doctors, or other experts. 

But we also need people who can help us think through our value judgments, to better understand how we want to craft our own lives, and the role of risk in that lifelong project. This is why we need trusted friends and family, who know us well and have our best interests at heart – we may not share all our values, but we can learn about what matters most through conversations with those who love us.