Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

Is Your Life in Danger? an Interview with David Ropeik

Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

Is Your Life in Danger? an Interview with David Ropeik

Article excerpt


Q.: How do we perceive risk in our lives?

A.: We perceive risk subjectively by combining the few facts that we have at any given time, filtering them through a bunch of 'feelings' factors quickly and subconsciously. This helps us gauge whether there is any real danger apparent in any given situation in conjunction to how worried we should be. It is a behind-the-scenes, subjective, subconscious, and affective process.

Q.: Why do human beings downplay risks to enjoy benefits?

A.: In short, so we can live our lives. If you consider the term 'benefits,' you could say just waking up this morning is a benefit when compared to not waking up. All of the things that we do, both the things we need to do as well as the things we want to do, involve tradeoffs: we mentally rearrange the evidence so that we can get those things done.

With risk, it's a complex formula that happens quickly, subconsciously, and emotionally that's essentially weighing how 'good' the benefit feels versus how 'bad' the consequences or risk feel. Take, for example, the story in recent news about a man kayaking along the New England coast who was almost attacked by a great white shark. This is a perfect example of how the benefits of a situation outweighed the risk, which then showed to be an apparent and very real risk. He wanted the benefit of kayaking in the ocean enough that he downplayed the risk of shark attacks and was lucky enough to learn from his mistake.

Q.: Can humans rely on current trends to best calculate personal risk?

A.: First of all, we should not; statistics are only one set of figures that need to be taken into account. Second, we should not, because in the study of probabilities, trends are not linear. Things do not always run smoothly, and there are ups and downs that cannot be foreseen.

We should not rely on trends factually, but more importantly: humans do a very poor job of incorporating numeric information into our subjective analyses. It's called innumeracy; an example of this is humans expect probability to behave in a certain way. If one flips a coin nine times and it comes up heads nine times, we expect probability to even out and the 10th flip to turn up tails. Over 1,000 flips, that type of thinking may prove to be true, but in a short range, such as just 10 flips, the next flip still has (and always will have) a 50/50 chance of landing either way. My point is that humans are generally poor at understanding probability, and it would be dangerous to rely on it.

Q.: What are our reactions in situations of danger?

A.: In any situation, perhaps the first thing the brain does is gauge whether there is any danger at all. If there is danger, that supersedes anything that is involved for the sake of survival. The way we do this is to send data in our brains, first (before it goes anywhere else in the brain) to an organ called the amygdala, which gauges whether there is any danger and responds accordingly.

The amygdala will either ignore the threat if it is not dangerous enough, or it will send out some degree of alert to the rest of the brain. In its more dramatic forms, this is referred to as the 'fight or flight' technique. Before we are conscious of whatever we have just seen or smelled or heard, this instance happens preconsciously; then when the potential danger becomes apparent (such as in the New England kayaker's case), the body kicks in. The kayaker was already paddling fast before he knew about the danger he was in. Once he realized his situation, all sorts of things were rushing through his brain about what to do. The emotions of his response overpowered the rational thinking that normally would have been in control. Our brains are hard-wired to feel first and to think second, and in an ongoing way: to feel more and to think less. This is true about all perception but is more apparent in perceiving danger. …

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