The Risks of Faulty Risk Perception

There’s a lot of talk among solo-preneurs, aspiring creatives, and writers about risk.  Founder of HomePortfolio, Inc. Tom Ashbrook equates entrepreneurship with risk: “Entrepreneurship means risk.” It’s an equation I hear and read often. And my clients pose questions of risk every week: Should I make the leap to leave my corporate job? Should I make the leap and start the business of my passions? Is it time to abandon writing the memoir that my agent wants me to write and invest my efforts in the novel I really want to write? And last week, I participated in Chris Guillebeau’s Master Class on risk at Behance’s 99% Conference. In that class, Chris posed two narratives:

Narrative #1: “I should stay in my job because it offers financial security, and leaving it would be dangerous and irresponsible.”

Narrative #2: “Leap and the safety net will follow.”

Then, thankfully, Chris suggested there might be a third way, call it cautionary risk.

But how does our thinking, our feelings, our perceptions of risk trip us to what is real and what is dangerous? Could our perception of risk actually lead to risky decisions?

Those are questions David Ropeik has been pursuing. Ropeik knows risk. He is an international risk consultant and is author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. Ropeik’s piece published recently in Nature – “Risk Perception” – argues that we cannot rely solely on reason nor solely on gut feelings to make important decisions where risk is involved. In the article, he describes what he calls the Perception Gap

The Perception Gap produces dangerous personal choices that hurt us and those around us (declining vaccination rates are fueling the resurgence of nearly eradicated diseases). It causes the profound health harms of chronic stress (for those who worry more than necessary). And it produces social policies that protect us more from what we’re afraid of than from what in fact threatens us the most (we spend more to protect ourselves from terrorism than heart disease)…which in effect raises our overall risk.

The challenge is not how to manage the risks of the Perception Gap. The challenge is to rationally let go of our irrational belief in the mythical God of Perfect Reason, and use what we know about the psychology of risk perception to more rationally manage the risks that arise when our subjective risk perception system gets things dangerously wrong.

What faculties do you call upon to make decisions when you perceive risk? Do you research the facts? Do you go on ‘gut feelings’? Do you meditate? Do you have any accounts of how your perception of risk and your fear got in the way of what was real? How do you educators facilitate students’ creative risk-taking coupled with emotional intelligence?

See you in the woods,

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  1. Great article! I think it has to be a combination of research, feedback and gut feelings. It also has to be about timing. You may have the perfect idea, but are you really ready to play full out? Be honest. It can be soothing to know that the risk is there, but when you are prepared (through research and support) you will have the gear to alleviate some of that risk.

    Thank you for the insights. I’m having so much fun reading this blog!

  2. Stefanie: I like what you say about the combo approach. I agree that timing is right. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we talk ourselves out of taking the leap because we think we have to have more research or get our ducks in a row, etc.

    I really appreciate your dropping in the hut and am glad you’re enjoying the blog.