As humans, we are hard-wired to avoid threats and situations that are potentially dangerous to us at all costs. The ‘fight or flight’ response is an instinctive reaction to threats in our surroundings, causing physiological changes, such as an increased heart rate, within milliseconds. These reactions have evolved to help us respond quickly, preparing the body to either fight or escape from imposing threats.
While this instinct may be good for avoiding simple and immediate dangers, it's not the best way to figure out what to do about more complex and long-term risks. Therefore, it’s important to take time to think and not immediately act on our initial response to potentially risky situations.
In addition to our instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response, there are many other factors that affect how we will feel about and respond to risk in our day-to-day lives:
The more control we feel we have over a situation, the less risky we perceive it to be.4 We are under the impression that we’re at least partially able to reduce the threat of a risk if we have a level of control. This explains why many of us are not afraid of driving a car, but are afraid of flying, despite car accidents harming more people than travel by plane.
We are more accepting of risks that we know a lot about and often perceive them to be a smaller threat than unknown risks we aren’t familiar with.
This is what we’re seeing right now with COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, very little was known about the virus and how it would affect us. This uncertainty and ‘fear of the unknown’ resulted in widespread anxiety, extreme behaviors such as panic buying, and becoming acutely aware of our own cleanliness and hygiene. However, our perception of COVID-19 as a risk is changing and will continue to change as we learn more about it.
Length of time between engaging in risk and its impact
A delay between engaging in an initial ‘risky’ event and the resulting impact can alter our perception of risk. A good example of this in daily life is the risk of a high-fat, unbalanced diet and heart disease. As the damaging impact of eating unhealthily is not immediate, the level of risk is downplayed.
The perceived risk of an event happening is heightened when we have greater awareness of the risk. For example, the perceived risk of developing cancer tends to increase when we are aware of a friend being diagnosed – it hits close to home.
Origin of risk
We are less concerned about risks that we choose to be exposed to or that are the result of our own actions, than risks that are imposed on us by other people. For example, people are often frustrated to see someone using their phone when crossing the road, when they may in fact do the same themselves.
Many of the decisions you face on a regular basis hold an element of risk. It’s important you are able to make a rational assessment of how risky a situation might be to ensure you can make the right choices for you. This article will provide you with tips and advice on how to deal with your decision making and the risks associated with this.