On Volcanoes, Flying, and the Dynamic Subjective Nature of Risk

On Volcanoes, Flying, and the Dynamic Subjective Nature of Risk

Posted Apr 21, 2010

      Imagine you're in England last Friday, at the end of a week-long trip. You had a good holiday, or successful business meetings, but you're beat and really looking forward to getting home to the U.S., or China, or Brazil. Then you find out that your flight has been cancelled because volcanic dust from some place in Iceland you can't even pronounce has spread all over Europe and could gum up jet engines and cause planes flying through it to crash. How do you feel?
      You're probably disappointed, and maybe a little frustrated, but resigned to the fact that the risk is real - the experts say so - so you'll just have to accept the delay. And you book yourself another night in the airport hotel.
      Now imagine it's Tuesday, and now you've been stuck for 5 days. The bill for hotel and meals is nearly two thousand bucks. You've got work you have to get back to. The experts can't tell you when it will be safe to fly. The volcano is still belching and the wind is still out of the northwest. But you're following the news and you hear airline executives complain that the ban on flying may not be needed...that the ash might not be that dangerous...that there may be pockets of low concentrations that are safe to fly through...and that the delays are costing them hundreds of millions of dollars a day. Now how do you feel about the risk?
      Probably a little different. Frustration is up. Costs are mounting. Trust in the officials who are in charge of your life is probably dropping. Any maybe, just maybe, you're starting to wonder whether the risk is as bad as they were saying it was, and if a flight opens up somehow, you're willing to give it a shot.
      Eyjafjallajokull is a great example of how risk is a subjective thing. Risk can never be measured, precisely defined and quantified, because it's never just a matter of the facts. It's how those facts feel, and how they felt last Friday is different from how those same facts feel today.
      When we first encounter a risk, the default setting is to treat it as serious. When we don't yet have all the facts, it's a lot safer to overestimate the threat than to underestimate it. Our affective risk perception system, which takes the partial information we do have and quickly runs it through a series of subconscious psychological and emotional and instinctive filters to see if that information might suggest danger, has evolved to be precautionary. Our ancestors who underestimated risks, died. That trait didn't work. They're out of the gene pool. And we're the safer for it.
      But how a risk feels is both subjective and dynamic. What feels dangerous at the beginning, may shift. After all, we learn. I bet there  weren't a lot of international fliers who could talk knowledgeably last week about volcanoes and ash and jet engines, (or who even knew where Iceland is for that matter). I bet there are plenty of them now.
      And beyond learning more facts, other emotional aspects come into play. A one-day delay isn't too bad. Five days is a lot worse. The costs are much higher. That makes the risk/benefit tradeoff of taking a flight home look a lot different on Day One and Day Five. Not the risk itself. The tradeoff...how the risk feels.
     And so, through that psychological lens, you start questioning the facts. Do those officials who say it's not safe really know what they're talking about? How much do you trust them? How much do you trust the airline executives who are pressing to let the planes fly again, claiming it's safe but possibly putting their profits ahead of your safety.
      And all of this goes into the emotional stew of how you're making up your mind, moment to moment, whether to take that flight if a seat opens up tomorrow. Are you measuring the concentration of ash in the specific flight path your plane will take, or it's temperature, or analyzing what that can do to the specific metal alloys in the jet engines of your plane, at what altitudes, etc? Of course not. We almost never have all the facts, or all the time to go get them, or all the smarts we'd need to understand them, as we gauge risk. Our ability to be perfectly rational about risk, or anything, is limited. This is what Herbert Simon meant when he coined the phrase "Bounded Rationality". But we have to make decisions all the time, so we take what facts we have, at any given moment, and run them through emotional and instinctive filters, and guesstimate what feels safe.
      What a clear example of the affective nature of risk perception this whole volcanic affair has been. And, by the way, not that it makes the risk feel any different, but Eyjafjallajokull is pronounced Ay-uh-fyat-luh-YOH-kuut-ul. Or if you'd like, you can listen for yourself, and even sing along!

David Ropeik is author of the new book "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts"

About the Author

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

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