David Ropeik | Risk Perception During Challenging Times

David Ropeik | Risk Perception During Challenging Times


David Ropeik is retired Harvard Instructor, author, and consultant on the psychology of risk perception, risk communication, and risk management. He was the principal faculty member of the professional education course The Risk Communication Challenge at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match The Facts, and principal co-author of RISK!!! A practical guide for deciding what’s really safe and what’s really dangerous in the world around you. Prior to teaching at the Harvard School of Public Health, he was a television reporter in Boston, twice winning the DuPont Columbia Award, often referred to as the Pulitzer Prize of broadcast journalism.





- As social animals we have evolved to seek protection from our group/tribe when we cannot protect ourselves against larger threats.

- The more afraid we are and the bigger the threat, the more we turn to our tribe for a sense of protection.

- The rise of nationalism and populism shows that people have a sense that they’re not in control of their lives. Globalisation and the liberalisation of many social values leaves a lot of people with the feeling that they’re not in control of their lives. In the United States the left says that the rich are in control of our lives (there’s truth to that) and the right says that the government is in control of our lives (also truth in this). They’re both saying the same thing - that we don’t feel like we have control of our lives.

- We turn to the tribe for the power and protection that we don’t feel we have.

- Lack of protection drives us towards the power and protection of the group, and this in turn leads to even less power and control of the individual.

- During times of chaos, all smaller tribes like political groups or religions are superseded by our desire to protect the ultimate tribe of humanity. UNDERSTANDING HOW LITTLE WE CONTROL Humans are mostly about keeping their own genes alive until tomorrow. We often debate the idea of free will simply because we want to have free will. It’s painful for us to let go and realise that most of what we do is simply a process of survival. It’s helpful to stop our over-thinking and to separate ourselves from the notion that we are in full control. 

- General advice for thinking about risks:

- We think more with our emotions than with our rationality.

- Quote: “The Brain is only the organ with which we think, we think.” Ambrose Bierce

- Thinking only with emotions can feel right, however it can often lead to mistakes. 

- Because the brain wants to use emotions and jump to conclusions, the best chance you have of thinking rationally is to stop overthinking and to calm the mind.

- By quieting the emotional mind we can allow our rational mind to have a chance of taking over.

- Question any information you get as to it’s reliability. For example, who is the information from? Are they a reliable source? Where did they get the information from?

- Ultimately whether you’re acting with reason or with emotions, it’s still an emotional response for survival that is allowing you to act with reason. We ultimately should live with a balance of emotion and reason. 

- We’re not not reacting to our emotions, but rather our emotions are reacting to what is biologically already happening.

- It’s not simply that we cannot tap into pure rationality or that we cannot override the emotional element of our being. It’s just that we have to work hard to do it. It is actually because our mind can be rational that we’ve made constant progress throughout history. This, however, does not mean that rationality is the brain’s instinctual first-response.

- Although we control almost no aspect of our existence, we should still teach kids basic ethics and morality, which can be simply seen as our guiding principles that help us to survive. Morality is simply what helps us to live in agreement with each other.

- The question of objective truth is still very much unresolved. Can we have ultimate truth? The Stoics taught that this was in practice almost impossible but in theory only possible for the sage. 

- There exists a pejorative among intellectuals towards hyper-emotional people.

- Despite the evidence, many intellectuals still believe that rationality is the winning state of mind, however the evidence shows that almost all choices are made through emotional and instinctual behaviours.

- Reason and emotion are parts of our reality, and understanding how little we actually control is the first step to actually making better decisions.

- Stoicism brought “soft determinism” to the world. This is the idea that we only control a very small portion of our actions.

- When any new risk comes along there are a number of emotional factors that tend to make us more alarmed, before we know anything. And the fact that we don’t know anything makes us more vulnerable because we don’t know how to protect ourselves.

- This reaction actually makes sense because it’s helped humanity to get this far. Our emotions are very in-tune with what’s happening around us and they help to protect us against threats.

- It’s better to jump away from what looks like a snake initially, even if it turns out to not be a snake. That way if it is a snake then we’re safe.

- “Heightened general awareness” caused by news outlets and social media sharing leads to a hyper-focused view where we only think and talk about the threat. This overwhelms the “reasoning” side of our minds and leads to anxiety, stress and fear.

- David says “The healthy brain is wired such that emotions easily override reason.”

- Our brains are lazy. The brain evolved during periods when we didn’t know when we’d have our next meal. Using 25% of our calorie intake, the brain is constantly looking for ways to cut corners, to economise the thinking process, to jump to conclusions and to take minimal facts and turn them into a perception that makes sense, upon which we will act.

- We’ve ordered our societies to make this process even easier because we trust news outlets to give us the low-resolution view of what’s happening so that we can quickly make a decision. This is just another way that our brains have made it easier to cut corners and save mental energy.

- The reasoning part of our brain doesn’t often take centre stage because it takes a lot more effort to do that.

- We’ve never been through a situation like Coronavirus before, in it’s specifics. In its generalities we’ve seen it before with pandemics like SARS and ebola. We internally remember the feeling of thinking “is this going to be the new thing that wipes us out.”

- The “availability heuristic (mental shortcuts)” is an important mental process to know when you’re dealing with stress and fear. David says that “the brain has learned that when a memory comes screaming out of memory and into consciousness faster and louder, as fear memories do, [it should] pay attention to it.”

- Therefore, while we don’t know all of the facts about this new pandemic, we do have a memory of this kind of fear which amplifies the alarm.

- Uncertainty adds to panic with every new level. At first we were simply worried about the disease, but now we’re worried about our livelihoods, our families, our retirements, our health and our countries. This leads to the ultimate fear - what will happen to normalcy. Will our lives ever go back to what we saw as “normal”.

- Anxiety in times like these is amplified by social isolation. We are social animals, and we don’t like to be isolated. We need social interaction so that we can assure each other that we’re all part of a tribe that can protect each individual.

- Isolation has been proven to raise anxiety, depress the immune system and elevate the heart-rate. So imagine how these effects are amplifying global anxiety.

- During these difficult times we are demonstrating unprecedented social altruism in our willingness to stay inside by ourselves. We also see that people who aren’t self-isolating are being badly stigmatised because they aren’t acting in the best interests of the herd.

- Because this is a global threat that could wipe out humanity we tend to put aside every other group identity that we have in order to look after the best interests of the human race. 

- Bruce McEwen taught about the idea of “allostatic load” (Allostatic load is "the wear and tear on the body" which accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress.)

- The End of Stress As We Know It by Bruce McEwen- Robert M. Sapolsky

- Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers - Zebras don’t get ulcers because their stress doesn’t last. They go into fight or flight, they either get eaten or they don’t, and then they go out of the stress response.

- All anxiety and stress comes from this same fight or flight response, however as humans we have a harder time releasing ourselves from that response as we constantly look into the future and back to the past.

- The stress response of fight or flight essentially turns up the dial on all the systems we need in order to fight the threat. For example, we need focused eye sight, our peripheral vision goes down, our hearing gets more focused, our digestion stops (or releases quickly to make us lighter for running), our heart rate rises, our blood pressure rises, and our immune system is raised (initially). After a few hours our immune system is actually depressed.

- Persistent stress (more than a couple of weeks) reduces a person’s immune system, raises their risk of heart disease, leads to higher risk of infectious disease, impairs fertility, slows bone growth, decreases hair growth, impairs cognitive ability, raises likelihood of depression, diabetes, and many other ailments. Over long periods stress can actually destroy brain cells.

- In times of crises sometimes it can actually be helpful to turn off the TV, podcasts and media and to find some time for walking, meditating and other stress-reducing activities.

- Dogs are a great example of “living in the moment”. They are only interested in now, which is why they’re always so happy!

- We do see, during hard times, that a central biological morality is revealed, however this simply does not transfer to us all agreeing on this central morality because we still remain in our own perceptions of the world. We are still involved in our own tribes, and it’s very difficult to shake these bonds.

- A great example is how, even though we act better towards each other in hard times, we all still cannot agree on the facts, even when it comes to the idea of the world being round!

- As societies get wealthier and people’s lives become easier they also start to recognise new problems to fix. This is the constant state of humanity. We’re always looking for new ways to grow and to survive, and each new problem, no matter how small, represents a new way for us to survive.

- Our hierarchy of needs is simply a representation of our most basic survival needs.

- Even fancy homes or expensive watches are examples of humans trying to feel in control and to feel safe. It’s all instinctual. 

- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a form of therapy that encourages the patient to face their fear voluntarily so that they can understand that they don’t need to be afraid. Voluntary confrontation is the cure for fears.

- The fear of public speaking is the ultimate fear in humans because it represents a fear of social rejection, and if we are rejected by the tribe then essentially we cannot progress.