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Should we adopt a rational response to risk ?


While dealing with measures to reduce risk we usually ask the question “Is this effective?”  Safety experts urge that the right question to ask is  “Is this worth the trade-off?” Risk and Safety experts advice a measured, rational approach to improve safety and security. This is predicated on the premise that we should judge risk based on the probability and magnitude. And usually this magnitude is on hard facts like accidents, property loss, fatalities, loss in productivity etc. Is this rational / objective response the right one. Are we better off if we went just by statistics ?

Lets take our response to terrorism. Thanks to terrorist attacks and 26/11 Mumbai attacks in particular, we have made massive investments in security apparatus both at the government level and in private contexts. Hotels and Offices had to invest in scanners, metal detectors, special gates, blocker gates and employ people to manage and maintain all this. The government invested in an NSG hub and a introduced a slew of anti terrorism measures. Now if you go back to the right question to be asked by a safety professional “Is it worth the trade-off?’ Since human life is invaluable, one cannot ask the question ‘ Is all this worthwhile, considering that terrorism isn’t the biggest killer. An alternate question could be, If this money were to be invested in healthcare, nutrition, road safety, maternal health….could we have saved more than 164 lives. While there can be no way of knowing for sure, but one can infer that it is highly likely that it could have saved more lives.

But, even if this information is available to us, even if we had all the facts, even if it can be proven, we would still decide to invest in the anti terrorism measures, thanks to the spectacular nature of the risk and the emotional impact it makes on our brain. While the reality of risk is mathematical, us, humans evaluate risk as a feeling. Its not the exact number we react to, but how we feel. Feeling of safety and Risk is driven at the nonconsious level and is primarily emotional. The emotional impact of a terrorist attack is difficult to compute.

We overestimate spectacular incidents than regular incidents. 26/11 attacks lead to 164 deaths, the same year more than 3000 people would have been killed while trespassing, more than 100,000  died on roads and more than 50,000 maternal deaths. many more children would have died because of poor healthcare facilities. So, a rational response would be to direct investments where we can save more lives for the rupee spent. The fallacy of this approach is that it totally ignores the emotional cost of terrorist incidents. They are etched in memory as stories although statistics tell us that there are other things we should focus on.

We would still invest more in anti terrorism measures than say in reducing train accidents as the emotional cost of terrorism a nation pays is lot more than the emotional cost say of malnutrition or sanitation or road safety. So, a rational response would have been grossly wrong in many ways. Eventually, we did what gives us better emotional satisfaction, thereby proving, in spite of overwhelming statistics that we are not an Economic man, but an Emotional man.

(Image source : Osan/AP)

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