"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fraidy Cats And Worrywarts - Why Risk Assessment Is So Difficult

“Fraidy Cat, Fraidy Cat”, yelled Margie Lemon’s five friends as she looked at the small stream in front of her.

“I’ll never make it to the first stone”, she thought. “Never in a million years. It’s too far.”

“Fraidy Cat, Fraidy Cat”, the girls yelled more loudly. “Little Margie is a little sissy-poo.”

Little girl on rock in stream


Her mother had explicitly told her that whatever she did, not to get her new saddle oxfords wet.  She could get them dirty, but water would shrink the leather and leave the shoes all puckered and lined.  The tips would buckle, the sole would come loose, and she would have to buy a new pair. “Get them dirty if you must”, warned her mother, “but under no circumstances get them wet.”

Image result for images girls wearing brown and white saddle shoes fifties


Yet here Margie was, taunted by her friends, laughed at once more because of her hesitation and worry; but wanting so much to jump, climb, and somersault like everybody else.  The first rock in the stream was not really that far.  She could easily jump that far on dry land so distance wasn’t the issue.  It was the rock itself.  Only a tilted, slippery side stuck out of the water, barely enough surface for her shoe.  Not only that, she would have to land with her right foot, and then immediately jump to the next rock which was even smaller and edgy.

No matter how much she tried to gin up her courage, dismiss worry and doubt from her mind, and throw caution to the wind, she could not.  She turned away, went back to the park bench and munched on an Oreo.  The chorus of boos and hisses from her girlfriend was nasty, spiteful, and loud.  Once again she had failed.

Of course she had not.  The chances were excellent that she would have either not made the rock or slipped on it, dipping at least one foot into the water and ruining her shoe.  One ruined shoe was as good as two, so the pair would have to crinkle, mold, come apart, and be thrown away. Had she looked at her friends’ shoes she would have seen that three girls had stumbled into the water – 60 percent to be exact – and therefore a very bad risk.  The cost of the shoes, the modest income of her father, the warning and sure punishment from her mother far outweighed the risk even if it had been much lower. She had done the right thing, but felt terrible about it.

Margie of course had not thought this way.  She, like most young children, were more attuned to social criticism, status, and standing than anything else; and it would have been very hard to decide whether the applause of her friends – perhaps the first step towards rehabilitating her image – was worth the shame, punishment, and financial loss of wet shoes.

The memory of the stream-rocks-and-shoes incident stayed with her for years because not only was her judgment very wrong – she was right not to jump – but she cried morosely and stupidly for days afterward. What was so hard about deciding which alternative was better? All five of her tormentors were dumb little twits from the West End whose parents had ten times the money that her parents had and could afford to dunk their shoes in the stream twice a week without anyone noticing; and they were so concerned about belonging and approval, that they were quite happy to walk around in wet shoes and socks for nothing.  It was their problem, not hers, so why was she the one in pain?

As she got older and challenges became more complex, she was even more unable to assess risk. There were always at least two sides to every question and it was a bugger to try to sort them out. Perhaps because of this indecision and increasing psychological frailty, she saw the world full of more and more risk and more and more danger.



She could barely walk out of the house without becoming paralyzed with doubt – which side of the street to walk on; whether or not to bring an umbrella;whether the old bus was a hazard; and whether or not she would catch the flu on the crowded subway because people sneezed into their hands and then held on to the railings.

Margie was an extreme case, of course.  Most people devise their own calculus for assessing risk.  It is hard to put a quantitative measure on qualitative attributes such as ‘status’,  ‘applause’, or ‘parental disapproval’; but people do it all the time, usually erroneously. The perception of risk is one of those things that originates deep in the psyche and is conditioned by upbringing, genes, and friends.

An older friend of mine was congenitally unable to calculate the relative risk of indoor air pollution, trans-fats, red meat, and Jockey shorts so he addressed all of them.  He installed expensive equipment in his house that purified the air; stopped eating all fats (he would eat only chicken and only if it had been boiled tough and shriveled dry), and gave all his tightie-whities to the Salvation Army.  All this in addition to a highly-regulated outdoor life. For example, he had determined his routes from home to work on the basis of the probability of accidents at Seven Corners by time of day; changed his tires at the first sign of wear, and had an advanced computer program installed in his car to anticipate catastrophic mechanical failure. He wasn’t as crippled by his inability to sort out the important from the unimportant risks as Margie, but he was on the edge.

Image result for traffic flow assessment


His wife was as much of a fraidy-cat as Margie, and was always after her grandchildren to ‘watch your edges’.  In her mind, every edge was dangerous – curbs where you could twist an ankle; knife edges which could cut long and deep; stairs, a fall from the edges of which could mean broken bones. The edges of swimming pools, counter tops, sinks, and escalators were all potential hazards.  It was as though her eyes had been distorted to see only the edges around things, not the things themselves.

A good friend has been a crusader for ‘progressive’ causes ever since I knew him in college.  He is honest, serious, and his heart is in the right place; but over the years he has come to overestimate the risk of every peril his movements have identified. Global warming is not just a possibility, nor even a probability, but a certainty that will provoke fires and destruction worse than those of the Last Judgment and in our lifetimes.  Capitalism is choking rather than inspiring individual enterprise, enslaving millions, and ensuring their perpetual poverty.  Women continue to labor under a patriarchal yoke and their necks will be broken by it. Global nuclear war is sure to happen. 

Image result for images durer the apocalypse

Durer, ‘Apocalypse’ www.oldprints.ch

None of these things are as serious as he makes out, and under no scenario will even one percent of his predictions come true.  He has overlooked human ingenuity; the inherent, native strength of women; the cost-benefit ratios of 21st century private enterprise; and the international calculus of war.  In other words, he has imperfectly understood the nature of the problem, overestimated the dangers to American society because of his inbred, longstanding, and subjective commitment to progressive causes.

Another friend believes in randomness.  There is neither purpose nor meaning in the universe; all events are determined by their equally random antecedents; risk is a false attempt to create social order and rational behavior; and that in this world of randomly colliding billiard balls, no one action – regardless of ‘risk’ – has any more value than any other.

Image result for images random billiard balls

Yet another acquaintance is profoundly religious, and because of her deep faith is worried about nothing except strengthening, consolidating, and expressing her faith in Jesus Christ.  Hindus believe that the world is maya, illusion; so they like my friend, pay no attention to the here-and-now which has no inherent meaning.

In short, one’s assessment of risk – like one’s cost-benefit analysis or determination of right and wrong behavior – is more fundamental to human nature than any other characteristic. How we perceive the world and how we navigate our way through the maze of accidents-waiting-to-happen determines who we are more than anything else.  We are either optimistic about our assessment and assume that we and others are calculating rationally and reasonably; or we are pessimistic, seeing the risks to life, productivity, and happiness increasing geometrically; or we are nihilists, accepting the hands of cards we are dealt.

Image result for images poker game casino las vegas

Sorry to say Margie Lemon never made it. Her indecisiveness turned into psychological fragility and finally paralysis. She was simply unable to look at the world objectively, decide what to worry about and what not to, and to get on with her life. 

I learned an important if obvious lesson from her.  Not only does every set of eyes not see the same thing; but everything is seen as either certain, probable, possible, or impossible. Events will happen for the good, the bad, or for nothing.  Perils are around every corner or do not exist at all and are simply potential occurrences.

As for me, I am way past the assessment phase.  I simply don’t want to trip on a loose bit of carpet and break my hip.

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