Several shark attacks occurred recently in North Carolina. While definitely scary, should the average person worry about getting attacked by a shark?
People often contemplate risks like these, but usually our thought process doesn’t reflect reality. We often focus on unlikely horrific scenarios rather than frequent mundane ones.
One way to better judge risks is by separating risks into two components. The first is impact, or the amount of damage that might occur. The second is probability, or how often you might expect a situation to happen. The risks we focus on should be both high-impact and occur often:
As an example, let’s look at the risk of getting injured due to slipping in the shower. I might expect to take a shower every day, but I might expect to slip only once every 100 showers. I’ll call this a medium probability. What about the impact? If I slip, chances are I might catch myself or just get a bruise. The impact is very low. I would classify this risk as low priority.
However, consider a healthy person around age 75. Both the probability of slipping (eg. less motor control) and the potential impact (eg. broken bones) increase. This risk has moved from a low priority to a high priority over a lifetime. Using this framework, we see that a mundane every-day task can still be very risky.
The National Safety Council has calculated the probabilities of dying from different causes. Note that these figures are lifetime odds for the whole US. The odds a person might ultimately die in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 110. The chance of dying from an air travel incident is 1 in 8,000. Yet we’re fascinated by and benchmark our fears with plane crashes.
If we don’t acknowledge this framework or recognize that risks can change over time, we’ll be wasting resources trying to fix the wrong situations. We may have evolved to fight or flee from lions and tigers, but today exposure to stress or sitting too long might be a bigger risk.
Many of the risks we face are mundane and repetitive while many of our worries are caused by unlikely (but media-fueled) disaster scenarios. Make sure that you are taking care of yourself and reducing those long-term every-day risks!