Our perception of risk

We are all familiar with assessing risk. Whether it’s writing a risk assessment or dynamically acting on the ground, we have undertaken hundreds (if not thousands!) of risk calculations. Yet how often do we consider that our risk assessments might be distorted or biased? How often are we actually creating the most effective risk assessment possible?

When undertaking risk assessments we can be forgiven for thinking that methods such as ‘probability x impact’ will result in analytical and rational calculations of risk. However, in reality, these reasoned responses are potentially influenced by subconscious short cuts, which are thought to be used by our brains to speed up decision making in dangerous situations. These cognitive short cuts, referred to as heuristics, are much less analytical than we would like; instead, they are emotive and affective rules of thumb that are based on things like our past experiences and the way our brains store information. The quick-fire responses reduce the complexity of decision making; so, if we are being chased by a lion our heuristic response means we don’t need to spend a long time assessing if we should run away. But often unbeknownst to the risk manager, heuristics can impact risk calculations by embedding subjective biases into our assessments. In order to ensure we are producing well-rounded and effective assessments, risk managers should be aware of what these biases are and how we can manage them.

As heuristics are frequently founded on experience, one person will perceive risk very differently from another. This individualistic perception means a risk manager is potentially constrained by their own cognitive limitations. For example, if the assessor is less familiar with the hazard, they may perceive it as being higher risk. In addition, if the assessor perceives the risk as being out of their control and with possible significant impacts, again they may rate it as higher (this is known as the Dread Hypothesis). This is why you might see high-devastation events like terror attacks appearing frequently on risk registers. Using the same example, a number of recent terror attacks may mean the brain potentially recalls them more easily, and hence could decide that they are more likely to happen (Availability heuristic). So even as a reasoned risk manager, our assessments can be influenced by something as simple as frequent media coverage of particular events.

Furthermore, when assessing risk we tend to believe information that supports our own position or preconceptions. Known as Confirmation Bias, this means we often discount other information regardless of how accurate or relevant it is. So, if you are creating your crowd management plan autonomously, are you more likely to believe it will successfully protect your audience? Additionally, if you are updating an old crowd management plan then you could be subject to Anchoring Bias; a tendency to rate risk close to a pre-existing data point, even when this might not be the case.

At this stage I can almost hear the sighs of defeat as you wonder if you have ever made an uninfluenced, rational assessment in your life! Unfortunately, as a risk manager, we are not only predisposed to heuristics; we are also affected by a myriad of external factors.

These external factors can include the safety culture found in your organisation. Culture is formed from the assumptions, beliefs and practices of the organisation, and influences everyone involved in it. There are academic taxonomies of safety cultures, of which Westrum and Reason can offer more detail, but largely it can be said that if you are working for an organisation with a weak safety culture then you are likely to be influenced by this pathological attitude to risk. This organisation might not be enabling huge infringements of duty, but they could be permitting numerous minor violations like failing to enforce the use of high-vis jackets on site. Such actions can combine to reinforce a weak culture. Working as a risk manager, you must be aware of the subconscious impact this can have on the way you assess your risks.

As risk managers, the influences of society can also affect our assessments. Different people will identify vulnerability differently depending on their societal experience; so as risk managers we need to ensure we are using expansive vulnerability assessments. These categories should go beyond our staff and customers, and include less commonly considered heterodox groups. We might not agree with the political extremists or rule-breaking fence jumpers at our event, but we still need to consider if they are in harm’s way. Furthermore, those who we consider not to be vulnerable can actually become situationally vulnerable in different circumstances; those loud-mouthed teenagers who we wrote-off as trouble will suddenly become vulnerable when they end up caught in a circle pit with no understanding of the unwritten rules.

In short, risk perception is constructed from learned experience and external interactions, and will result in varying risk appetites across all stakeholders of your event. The police will have their own set of influences; the crowd have theirs; the Safety Advisory Group have theirs; and the promoter has theirs. However this is not an insurmountable challenge! The key is to understand we cannot eradicate these influences, only understand how they may impact us, and adjust to counteract them where possible. Integration and cooperation with different stakeholders at all levels of the organisation will help with this; always ask the question in multiple ways, to multiple people, and at multiple times. As Paul Slovic once said, risk does not exist ‘out there’, independent of our minds and waiting to be measured analytically and rationally; risk is subjective, impacted by external influences, and perceived uniquely by every person involved with it. To make us better crowd and risk managers, we must understand the influence on our assessments, so we can lessen their impact each time we assess risk.

Clare Goodchild – published in The Crowd Magazine Issue 4, 2020

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