We all take risks, and most of us do so irrationally. We make assumptions and then take action based on factors which have nothing to do with true likelihood. Cass Sunstein, writing in the New Republic (10.31.12) suggests three major reasons why we take risks when we really should not:
The first involves unrealistic optimism. Some of us show an optimism bias; we believe that we are peculiarly immune from serious risks.
Human beings are also subject to availability bias. When people are evaluating risks, they tend to ask whether other, similar events come to mind, thus using what social scientists call “the availability heuristic.” If you immediately think of cases in which officials exaggerated risks, and asked people to take precautions that proved to be unnecessary, you might decide that there’s nothing to fear
The final problem is motivated reasoning. For many of us, evaluation of risks is not just a matter of calculation. Our motivations, in the sense of our emotions, our desires, and our wishes, count too, and they can much affect our judgments. If you are strongly motivated to believe that capital punishment deters crime, you are likely to credit the studies that support that belief.
The worst possible scenario is when there is a Perfect Storm of all three irrational risk assessments. The likelihood of Superstorm Sandy hitting my house in DC is practically nil, I say, with unrealistic optimism; and even if the weatherman says that the chances are good, they have been wrong so many times before that I have half the basement filled with canned food, say I with availability bias; and the liberal media are so biased towards global warming that they deliberately inflate the risk, I conclude with motivated reason.
I fall more or less into this Perfect Storm category of total denial of risk. Falling trees have never hit my car, even when I hoped that some deus ex machina would relieve me of the monthly payments; and global warming is a fiction, because who can forget the Snowmaggedon of 2010 when more than three feet of snow fell on DC? I had to dig my car out not once but three times because the new mayor wanted to show he was not like Mayor-for-Life Barry who said, referring to his administration’s poor response to heavy snow, “Get over it. It will melt”; and scoured every spare truck from the area to come to my neighborhood. These homeboys and West Virginia crackers didn’t have lawns in their ‘hoods, so humping up the curb and gouging out snow-covered ones which they couldn’t even imagine, was just fine with them. No problem.
That was only a few years ago, so if there is such a thing as global warming, did it take a break that year? Nature’s equivalent of skiing in Aspen with two feet of fresh powder?
The most important element in all this is that I have taken so many risks in my life and come out all right that shit simply cannot happen to me. I have had condoms break and never once received the panicky “We’ve got to talk” call. I have been seen in places I never should have been seen, and come away clean as a whistle. I have driven totally whacked out oblivious behind Bombay Black and crystal meth and made it fine from the Village to Jersey (why was I ever going to Jersey in the first place?). I lived in India for five years in the Sixties, and that was one constant, continuous risk of disease. I travelled to the hellholes and shitholes of Africa but missed the bullets, the kidnappings, the horrific traffic accidents, or even getting eaten by lions in Great Zimbabwe. So what’s the big deal about risk?
A few things Sunstein ignores. First, the 'I-don’t-give-a-shit’ risk-benefit analysis. I realize that bum-fucking a girl I met in a bar without a condom is risky business; but who cares? At my age, any girl who will turn bottoms up for me is better than the best Christmas present ever. Antony, the Triumvir of Rome, respected general, leader of the Roman people, gave it all up for an Egyptian tart. He knew exactly the risks he was taking. Either Cleopatra would turn tail on him and run from battle (which she did); or the fraying alliance with Octavian would finally break (which it did). So what? He was at the end of his career and his life, so WTF.
Second, we live in an age where the sheer complexity of life makes reasonable and rational risk assessment impossible. Your oncologist tells you that if you do X, you will have a Y chance of the cancer returning and a Z chance of side effects; and if you do Y…etc. Bewildering. The choice is either to close your eyes and pick X or Y, knowing that you are flipping a coin; to force the doctor to choose for you, putting him in an uncomfortable legal position; or to run out of the room knowing that neither choice is a good one. How many times have I seen medical opinions overturned? And how many guys are riding the elevators up to their K Street law offices without a prostate and unable to get it up because doctors said “No prostate means no prostate cancer” and they bought the argument, afraid of risk.
I knew an older man who had begun to try to reduce risks to his health in late middle-age. He first reduced his consumption of fats, sugar, salt, and alcohol by half, then two-thirds, then completely. Eating dinner at his house was a trial. The chicken had been boiled so that all fats had been rendered. This greyish-white lump of meat sat on the plate accompanied by spice-less, half-cooked vegetables, and a baked potato with no fixin’s. He then became obsessed with indoor air pollution, and he deployed super-sucker air purifiers which mercilessly roared night and day. He did painstaking and meticulous research to determine which roads between Falls Church and Alexandria, Virginia had the fewest traffic fatalities. Finally, he never left the house, and the fire department had to break the door down to retrieve him and commit him to the State loony bin.
Once you start becoming concerned with risk, you see that dangers lurk everywhere. Your fleeting shadow of a life is even more precarious than Hamlet ever imagined; and worse than he, you worry about every combination and permutation of possibility, opportunity, and chance. Finally in the end, exhausted, and depleted, you either say ‘fuck it’, or pray to God to guide you in the right decision, or simply let the sands of fate, chance, and fortune, cover you up like a scraggly bush in the Sahara.
Our response to risk is really what defines us. To understand another, it is best to put on the risk-focused glasses and see how he reacts to unknown odds. Some will resort to fatalism, whether philosophically or religiously determined. Actions are either according to God’s plan or to some random arrangement of cosmic billiard balls. In either case, you go with the flow or play the cards dealt you, and see what comes up.
Others will resort to beating the odds. Very American, this approach. We can do anything, solve any problem, beat the most overwhelming odds. Nothing wimpy, flaccid, neutral, and European about us. The weight of 2000 or more years of history means nothing when you have resolve, will, determination, and confidence.
I am a firm adherent of the ‘fuck it’ school. I have lived too long and seen too many theories go down the drain to actually trust in received wisdom, or believe in my ability to sort out conflicting theories to be able to accurately assess risk. Life is far too short to worry all the time, or to spend endless energy in campaigning for Romney or Obama or fighting for the Preservation of the Bay. What will happen if one or the other wins? Not much, and in 100 years neither one will be remembered except for their gaffes and missteps.
Is there a greater risk to the body politic if Romney wins? I doubt it. Should I move to the Mojave Desert where, I am told, there are no natural disasters, little air pollution, no terrorist threat, and no spoiled fish? Not exactly. I am happy here in Washington, DC, where I am glad that Superstorm Sandy missed us, that my lights never went out, and no tree fell on my car.