From the editor: You are not very good at judging risk. Sorry.
You are not very good at judging risk. Sorry, but it’s true. All humans have a tendency (studied by psychologists over many years) to assess risk based on an array of cognitive quirks rather than the available evidence. We feel safer driving than flying, for example, despite what the stats show.
Among these quirks is optimism bias, where we think our personal risk is less, relative to other people’s.
Our tendency to downplay risk can be a positive force when it drives us to keep working on difficult tasks. Even when we have a well-judged risk assessment there can be many reasons to chose a high-risk, high-reward path. In their book Vaxxers, Catherine Green and Sarah Gilbert explain how their teams designed and developed Covid-19 vaccines at an unprecedented speed by choosing to proceed “at risk” on many occasions. They began some processes before funding was secured, judging that the risk of slow development was greater than the risk of having to stop a particular piece of work if funding did not emerge.
Similar thought processes were going on across government – emails published this month by the Good Law Project show then-health secretary Matt Hancock telling officials to go “hell for leather” when awarding testing contracts, despite concerns about overriding the usual procurement processes.
Alongside optimism, humans tend to share another bias – hindsight bias – which makes us think things were more inevitable than they really were.