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How we learn to feel safe taking risk

Assessment of risk, to a certain extent is a natural process we go through. But we aren’t that good at it if we have no direct experience. There are, research has shown, a few built in, implicit fears that most of us have as a result of our ancestral experiences, for example, abandonment, being left by our carers/parents. But we are not naturally fearful of heights or even snakes. These fears are learned.

We learn by doing and experiencing more than we do by thinking. We are capable of associating situation with risk through what we are told by others, but we don’t really learn from others experience as such. We can learn to pair a threat/hazard with a rule that can inform us of a required behaviour in that circumstance.

For example, you can tell your child not to touch the fire because they will get burned and you can expect some adherence to this rule if your child has learned to trust you the rule maker. But there is nothing quite like a burn to cement the association between hazard, behaviour and injury.

Imagine however, if the child did not listen to the rule and had touched the fire and never received a burn. The experience would override the rule. The experience would cement – hazard, behaviour, no injury.

Experience doesn’t always inform us of risk. If you repeatedly touch fire, you will at some point get burned. It is because of this consistency that most of us will not stick our hands too close to the flames for long enough to get burned. This experiential feedback is relatively reliable. We can use the reliability to assess the risk and forecast the likelihood of future injury.

However, if we only suffered a burn at random, infrequent intervals, we would learn that fire wasn’t that dangerous and for some, we may never experience a burn at all. We would learn that the behaviour was ‘safe’, i.e. behaviour executed, no injury received.

Experience is a good teacher if we determine that the risk is reliably high. Fear of heights is a good example of a learned reliable high-risk situation.

Whereas crashing your motor car or falling off your bicycle, once or more rarely leads to a fear of driving or cycling. There will, most probably be cautions behaviour after the unwanted outcome but it is short lived and we soon return to the comfort of the at-risk behaviour as we experience the desired outcome more often than not.

Smoking, drinking, working on a construction site without safety glasses or gloves are all examples of at-risk behaviours that can be performed by the majority of people, for most of the time without negative feedback in the form of ill health or injury.

But even learned reliable high-risk situations such as a fear of heights can be unlearned, tolerated or suppressed to such a point where the person puts them self at risk. Having experienced the desired outcome more than the undesired. After all, that worker walking the beam has done so for the last 20 years and is not dead yet. Hazard, behaviour, no injury, desired outcome.

Experience is king in terms of risk appreciation. We, mostly, interpret risk based on the past experience of numerous individual outcomes. We are not good at adding these individual moments together to see cumulative risk and we are not that good at being cautious especially if we have a learning history of reinforced at-risk behaviour.

We learn to take risks and feel safe doing so.

First published on Linked In 12/03/19

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