Three people skydiving

Life-changing findings?

We don’t all respond to risk the same way

People perceive and respond to risks in different ways. How we think and behave (psychological factors) and how society works (sociological factors) play a part in this – we often go with our gut feeling or are affected by the behaviour of people around us. It seems most people underestimate the risk in activities where they have control and overestimate the risk of things they can do little about.

The timescale involved can also be a factor, particularly when it comes to health. It can be hard to be motivated to change short-term behaviour – such as eating or drinking habits – because of a risk of health problems in the distant future. This can often lead people to put off an action to another day, saying things like “I’ll stop smoking when I get older”. When it comes to long-term benefits, it is also potentially easier to take a ‘positive’ action, such as joining a gym, than a ‘negative’ one, such as drinking less. On the whole, it seems as though people deal with short-term choices, where the potential benefits are immediate, better than long-term ones.

In some situations we have to weigh up relative risks – for example, with preventative medicines such as anti-malaria drugs. Drugs like doxycycline and mefloquine can have unpleasant side-effects, but if you don’t take them when travelling to malaria hotspots, you run the risk of contracting the potentially fatal condition. Research into our perception of risk has tried to place a monetary value on how much the average person would have to be paid to willingly accept a one-in-a-million chance of death – see ‘Living the (micro) life’. You might think it would be high, but the findings estimate that it is just $50.

Lead image:


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Number Crunching’ in June 2013.

Statistics and maths, Medicine, Health, infection and disease
Number Crunching
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development