The Real Story of Risk

Adventures in a Hazardous World

Men Taking Risks to Attract Women

From Psychology Today

Men have a reputation for taking more risks than women.  While this is a gross generalization, and there are certainly many women who take plenty of risks, a variety of studies suggest that men take greater risks in a variety of a ways.  One big motivation for this risk taking by men might be attracting women.


One study that examined risk taking behaviors examined how early students arrived for a bus, watching a particular bus stop.  A bus at the University of Liverpool would arrive at its stop twelve minutes before its scheduled departure at 9:40 AM.  Finding the optimal time to arrive for the bus stop would seem easy; if the bus always gets to the stop at 9:40, then you could arrive at 9:39 AM, waste little time waiting, and always make it to class on time.  Sometimes the bus leaves a few minutes early though, making the least risky time to arrive at the bus stop five minutes before its schedule departure.  Any later and you risk getting left in the cold and missing your class.


When the arrival times for students were analyzed, women seem to instinctively gauge their arrivals to the predicted optimum, getting to the bus stop five minutes before the bus leaves.  Single men, however, arrive at the bus stop slightly later, taking a greater risk.


Taking the bus to school might not seem like a big turn on, but the researchers also examined how men and women cross a busy street. Researchers watched a street on campus in Liverpool and judged the traffic when men or women pedestrians approached. The researchers then broke down the amount of traffic present as low or no risk, or as risky when cars were passing through the pedestrian crossing. When the data were examined, men at the crossing were significantly more likely than women to cross at risky moments when cars were passing in the street. But this risky behavior was not always seen. Most people avoid risky crossings when spectators are present, but young men in this UK study were particularly likely to make risky crossings when females were present, as if this was their way of showing off for the opposite sex.


Similar findings are seen elsewhere.  In another study, young male skateboarders took more risks and more falls when observed by an attractive female researcher. The higher the skateboarders’ testosterone levels, the greater the risks they took. “Our results suggest that displays of physical risk taking might best be understood as hormonally fueled advertisements of health and vigor aimed at potential mates, and signals of strength, fitness, and daring intended to intimidate potential rivals,” said Prof. William von Hippel of the University of Queensland.


The reason for this risk taking by men may lie in our biology.  In mammals, females invest more in reproduction than males.  Many men might make great dads who stick around and help with the kids, but the minimum investment on the part of men can be quite short, while women must invest at least nine months.  As a result of this one-sided commitment, mammalian females are often quite choosy when selecting mates.  Males of some mammalian species often compete for mates one way or another, displaying their superiority as a potential mate.  In the case of humans, this competition might come in the form of showing off by taking risks.  


Of course, men are not the only ones taking risks, and how they take risks depends on the situation.  Not all risk taking by men is likely to be for attracting women. Studies suggest that men might take more physical and financial risks, but women take greater social risks.  But the next time you are crossing the street or at the skate park, look out for the young males. 

The Risk of a Changing Climate: A Psychological Challenge

From Ecopreneurist:

Climate change is a great risk to our world, maybe the greatest.  Climate change related threats like rising seas, drought, floods, and strains on food production threaten our way of life, and the lives of billions of others.  These changes are not all in the distant future - they are already underway today, and getting increasingly hard to ignore.  And yet, as a planet and a people, we’ve barely started to address this problem.  Greenhouse gas emissions dipped briefly in the midst of the Great Recession, but have since continued to soar, along with the global temperature.


Why is this?  How could it be that we face the greatest threat of our time, and as a species seem to be doing little about it?  A great many individuals, cities, even countries have made impressive efforts, but the overall impact so far is nowhere near enough to avoid the worst case scenarios.


One answer might be that people just don’t know the facts.  According to surveys though, most people know about climate change and even agree with the statement that humans are causing it. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, wrote, “Since the year 2000, numerous public opinion polls demonstrate that large majorities of Americans are aware of global warming (92%), believe that global warming is real and already underway (74%).” We know there’s a problem. We’re just not excited about doing something to fix it.


A more likely answer lies in anxiety.  Climate change is not just a technological problem or a political one, but a psychological challenge.  A threat this great can generate a great deal of anxiety if we let it.  So we don’t.


When facing a threat like this, we can do one of three things. We can (1) take immediate action to fix the problem, (2) get anxious and stay anxious until the problem goes away on its own, or (3) harness the power of denial to turn off the anxiety and feel better.  The answers to solve climate change are not quick and easy, and a state of constant anxiety is almost unbearable.  Given the options, denial is an easy and immediately gratifying course, relieving the anxiety that threatens to overwhelm us.


A crisis might change our choices.  Efforts to call climate change the climate crisis don’t seem to have gained much traction though. As of right now, the cities are not yet submerged and probably will still be above water next week.  Climate change is not probably at the top of the list of worries for most folks when they get up in the morning or go to bed at night.  So it’s easy to put it off for later, no matter how large the eventual risk is.  “Climate change is disturbing,” says Kari Norgaard, author of Living in Denial. “It’s something we don’t want to think about. So what we do in our everyday lives is create a world where it’s not there, and keep it distant.”


Our failure to fight climate change is often blamed on climate change deniers, who have done their best to get the public to question whether climate change is a real problem. The Koch Brothers and others have been well documented to have carried out a campaign to create doubt about climate change in order to benefit those like themselves with financial interests in coal and oil.


Really it’s not this simple, though. While there has been a highly effective campaign to sow doubt in the American public about climate change, the climate change deniers are not alone. The success of the climate deniers stems from our own innate programming that makes us receptive to their message. If we don’t see an immediate threat and can’t easily fix it right here and right now, it’s in our nature to push the threat out our mind, to deny that it’s even a problem at all.


Climate deniers don’t invent how we think; they merely exploit our own desire to create a safe bubble of denial, to build a levee holding back the rising tide of uncertainty. It seems that there is a little denier in all of us, and our inner denier comes out not just to deny climate change but also to deny many other risks as well.


If the biggest barriers to fighting climate change are psychological rather than technological, then the solutions might be too.  A change in strategy might be in order by those seeking to cultivate greater support for efforts to fight climate change.  A further deluge of facts seeking to stir up fear and a greater response may only create a further retreat into denial.  Strategies that reduce fear and create a sense that we can make a difference today with simple positive action might prove more successful.  Moral arguments that emphasize shared values may also prove more effective, since decisions are often based on social interactions and values rather than scientific data.


And there’s always the power of experiencing a crisis.  If all else fails, a crisis related to climate change that people experience first hand seems guaranteed to generate a response.  Experience really is the best teacher, but the lessons might come too late.  We’re already experiencing some of the effects of climate change, and yet major action seems nowhere near.  Better if we can avoid a crisis by understanding how we deal with risks like climate change and developing more effective strategies for change today.

Risky Beginnings

People are funny creatures.  Being one myself, I often wonder about why we do the many crazy things we do, including why we seem to have such a hard time judging risks.  Driving is one of the riskiest things we do each day, killing almost 40,000 Americans a year, but it is so commonplace that we feel totally at home in the car, texting, putting on makeup, or whatever else comes to mind.  We seem to readily ignore massive world changing risks like climate change, earthquakes, or financial calamities, while rare risks like snakes and sharks strike fear in the hearts of millions.  Why does public speaking routinely show up as the number one fear in surveys?  What are we afraid of, really, and why?  All too often our distorted view of risk sends us down a path that seems hard to understand, without looking more deeply to understand who we are and how we got here. 


Some of the answers lie in our evolution over the last few million years in Eastern Africa, in a world in which we faced very different risks from those around us today. The big risks ancient humanity faced over the course of evolution were predators, starvation and disease, not computer viruses. Those who survived those ancient risks are our ancestors, passing their risk-dodging genes and biology on to us, embedded in our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Those who failed to dodge those risks left nothing more than fossils.


There were moments over the course of human evolution when the fate of humanity was by no means a sure thing.  Our ancestors were small, thin-skinned, and had few defenses against the threats they faced.  At one point, our genes reveal, the human population dwindled down to about 5000 individuals.  But our ancestors managed to survive by their wits, working together, and over time did remarkably well.  Our ancestors succeeded so spectacularly in fact that the tools we evolved with to survive in the ancient world allowed us to develop complex technological societies and a global population of 7 billion, reshaping our planet.


As a result of the massive changes in the world, we’re a bit like fishes out of water.  While humans were ideally suited to manage the risks of the ancient world, we have changed our world so much that those risks have largely disappeared.  The risks we faced throughout human evolution, the risks that shaped our evolution, are no longer there, for the most part. Rather than facing predators, we now deal with risks like fast food, white collar crime, and mortgage-backed securities. The tools that helped our ancestors to survive in the ancient world are poorly suited to the risks of the modern world, often failing us, and sometimes failing spectacularly.


I wrote The Real Story of Risk to explore our quirky, frustrating, bewildering, and wondrous responses to risks we face in the world we live in today. The story moves from Homo erectus facing hyenas on the plains of Africa millions of years ago to Homo sapiens in Manhattan, dodging cabs and financial derivatives. It’s a story of humanity, evolved to be highly adaptable in a changing world, and creating a new era of climate change we are scarcely suited to handle. It’s the story of Jill the cave diver, Krishna the shark attack survivor, Dan the control freak, and Roberta the naked skydiver. It’s a story of love, death, snakes, conspiracy theories, con men, rising seas, hurricanes, earthquakes, and crossing the street. It’s the story of us.


I hope it’s not giving away the ending to say that at the end of the day the solution to our warped sense of risk is not to avoid all risks. This is not possible, or even advisable. But by better understanding how we fail and succeed at dealing with the risks we face, we can do a better job at dealing with risks in the future as individuals and as a species. 

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