Chances are, you’re worried about all the wrong things.

What are the chances of slipping on a banana skin, choking on a fishbone or being struck by a meteorite? These are not the sort of unlucky events that most people spend their time thinking about, unless perhaps one has already happened to them.

A surprising number of people have at some time in their lives imagined with dread the thought of being buried alive. Some even have recurring nightmares about it, whereas relatively few are afraid of dying from influenza, even though it is a far more common experience.

Irrational fears are intimately linked with our ideas of risk. No doubt many people who smoke — by far the single biggest avoidable risk — or who go rock climbing or bungee jumping will be among the same people who drink bottled water on the grounds that it is safer than the stuff from the tap.

Only a decade ago the great fear was of annihilation in a nuclear holocaust. Today some of this panic about global destruction has switched to worries about the Earth colliding with a giant asteroid.

Even Edward Teller, the American nuclear physicist and father of the H-bomb, has suggested that the one-in-a-million chance of colliding with an object in space is big enough to justify the risks involved in building bigger nuclear weapons to knock a rock off course.

If Teller’s line of argument seems a touch irrational, he is not the only one to be a bit off beam about real and imagined risks. We are all at it.

The fear of flying is far greater than the fear of driving, even though the statistics show that going by plane is far safer than by car. The best explanation is that people dread far more the possibility of dropping out of the air rather than crashing on terra firma.

Imagining the dreadful outcome of a particular risk strongly influences our perception of whether it is ever likely to happen or not. Few men had ever seriously imagined waking up without a penis, but this changed soon after the story of John Wayne Bobbitt, who suffered this fate in 1993 after annoying his wife who was handy with a sharp knife.

In an attempt to educate us all in the real and imagined risks of life, the Department of Trade and Industry has asked scientists to construct a Richter scale of risk that the public can use to compare any new and unfamiliar risks in terms of real events, such as cancer, being run over by a car or being struck by lightning.

The impetus comes from a series of scare stories that have exasperated those who are officially responsible for alerting the public to potential dangers.

A prime example occurred in 1995 when research into a new, third-generation contraceptive pill indicated that women who took it were twice as likely to develop potentially lethal blood clots.

After the official watchdog on drugs, the committee on safety of medicines, issued a stern warning, it was not surprising many women were scared off the pill. One result was an extra 8,000 abortions and an unknown number of unplanned pregnancies where the risks far exceeded the dangers of continuing with the pill – estimated at resulting in just two extra deaths a year.

The Royal Statistical Society suggested that a scale of risk would have helped people to judge sensibly what the added danger really was. But John Adams, a professor at University College London and a leading expert on risk, is not convinced that such a simple scale of risk is going to be as informative as some experts believe. He explained the pitfalls in a lecture to last week’s British Association for the Advancement of Science’s conference.

Take the probability of dying in a road accident, which is usually found about halfway along the scale of risk, between the fatality risks of smoking 10 cigarettes a day (1 in 200) and being struck by lightning (1 in 10 million). The typical risk of a lethal accident on the road is 1 in 8,000, which is derived by dividing the total number of traffic deaths by the total population.

“There are a number of problems which place in doubt the utility of the table as a guide to individual risk-taking decisions,” Adams says. A more detailed look at road deaths shows that a young man is 100 times more likely to die in a road accident than a middle-aged woman.

“Someone driving at 3 am on Sunday is 134 times more likely to die than someone driving at 10 am on Sunday; someone with a personality disorder is 10 times more likely and someone 2.5 times over the alcohol limit is 20 times more likely,” Adams says.

If you take all risks into account, the differences within the traffic accident group can be dramatic: “One could predict that a disturbed, drunken young man driving at 3 am on Sunday would be 2.7 million times more likely to die than a normal, sober, middle-aged woman driving to church seven hours later.”

An average risk, therefore, covers up the huge differences between individuals doing the same thing, which is exploited by the insurance industry. “Insurers depend on ignorance of this enormous variability because they need the good risks to subsidise the bad,” Adams says. “If the good and bad risks could be accurately identified, the good ones would not consider it worthwhile to buy insurance and the bad ones would not be able to afford it.”

But even the best attempts at insuring against risks can be made to look ludicrous by our desire to take them. As Alison Hargreaves, the mountaineer who died while climbing in the Himalayas, once said: “It is better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.”

Reprinted from the London Sunday Times

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