Sunday, 8 November 2015


Time for something mildly speculative after all that Yorkshire ale.

During my working life I attended about three million meetings. I think it was close to that kind of number although my memory may be adjusting things a little. Something to do with autonomous aversion therapy I expect.

Anyhow, probably the most starting thing I discovered during all those meetings was how extremely risk-averse people can be. I use the word ‘startling’ because at the time it was. People are not particularly rational – I knew that but in my younger days I had not yet seen just how irrational folk can be when personal interests are in the air.

Many people are sensitive to the smallest shadow of risk, the faintest ephemeral hint of even the most improbable threat when it comes to their own situation. It makes them irrational and very, very determined. Whatever the overall benefits, however sensible a change might be, such people will oppose it for all eternity unless their own situation is certain to be enhanced or two hundred percent secure.

During those three million meetings it soon became obvious that perceived risk could be the most significant driver of human affairs. In which case, intelligence, progress and rational thought are myths, part of the risk machine’s endlessly subtle mechanisms for spinning a rationale for building consensus, for following the low risk route. That’s how the risk of knowing too much is dealt with – stick with consensus and avoid knowing.

Clearly a vast amount of modern life revolves around risk in all its many forms. Things could hardly be otherwise in view of our overall survival imperative. It fits well with what we know of behaviour reinforcement and with seeking out the route of fewest surprises.

Even living in the UK is a risk because the mild winter cannot sustain human life without our life-sustaining technology – clothes, shelter and power. That may change of course. Yet many risks do not threaten our survival at all, even though we take enormous pains, go to great lengths and spend huge amounts of money to avoid them.

It is almost as if our big brains do not represent the evolution of intelligence, but the evolution of risk awareness. We are not so much intelligent as super-subtle risk assessors. We use this ability to populate almost every niche on the planet, including the oceans. We use tools and behaviour to moderate the risks of potentially hostile environments and we populate them. 

In which case we are not so much tool-makers as manipulators of physical risk. Tools from spanners to skyscrapers, from bricks to bridges are all designed to reduce risk or adapt to risk – that is their only purpose.

Yet accurate risk assessment goes wrong and when it does we get a range of consequences from war to social collapse, from totalitarian government to dubious dietary advice. Perceived risks are vast in scope and subtlety and the scope for serious error is correspondingly vast.

Complexity increases risk so we take complex steps to mitigate it even if we don’t fully understand it. That’s one advantage of prejudice – it narrows the range of acceptable possibilities, reduces complexity and thereby reduces risk. Prejudice may have its own risks which institutions and governments try to eliminate, but eliminating one kind of risk many create others simply because complexity has increased in unforeseen ways.

Politics is all about perceived risk, often with facile attempts to reduce it by placating some pressure group which only wishes to reduce its own risks. Or outright loons try to create ideal political structures, a deluded political stasis where there can be no risk because all risks have been designed out by the loons, cast into that outer oblivion where demons lurk.

Except the demons are inside. They always are.


Sackerson said...

I'll have to re-read this when I'm not so tired. Meaty.

Edward Spalton said...

A few years ago Frederick Forsyth wrote an article demanding a referendum on EU membership.
I wrote warning "Beware of what you wish for: you may get it.
He wrote back at some length, observing tha there had now been generations educated to be risk averse.
"or in plain words, cowardly".

In debating the EU in front of sixth forms for about 8 years, I noticed a strong pro EU shift of opinion in
the last two years - also remarked by other pro independence speakers. It appeared to be related to
perception of risk in the wicked, wild word outside the EU.
"The EU is like a family" said one speaker . " Like your own family, it is not perfect but you would be very
lonely without it" - and the pupils felt secure in the EU nursery.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - too meaty really. It needs a series of posts but interest would soon wane.

Edward - that may be the mountain that pro independence campaigners cannot climb unless perceptions of the EU change quite radically. Somehow it would have to become "unsafe" in the public mind.

James Higham said...

Many people are sensitive to the smallest shadow of risk

And that has grave implications for politics of course.

A K Haart said...

James - it does and there is no escaping it.

Demetrius said...

Many people, too often those in authority, do not like to be told things that they do not want to hear.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - and telling them such things is probably a risk - a career risk.