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The Complicated Science Of Risk

This episode of Sparks, FiveThirtyEight’s monthly science podcast that runs in the What’s The Point feed, is all about risk: what it is, how we evaluate it in our lives, and why it’s not so simple to study.

Science writers Christie Aschwanden, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Maggie Koerth-Baker join senior editor Blythe Terrell for this month’s conversation. In preparation, the four read “The Art of Risk” by Kayt Sukel, in which Sukel describes losing her appetite for risk and tries to figure out the science behind why that happened — and whether she can get it back.

Here’s the second part of the podcast, when Maggie interviews Sukel.


A lightly edited partial transcript of the first part of this month’s episode is below. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you think.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: One of the interesting things is that [Sukel] talks a lot about how there are all these different definitions of risk and all of these different researchers who are approaching this from these different ways. So one researcher whom she talked to described risk as the appraised likelihood of a negative outcome for behavior, and others describe risk as behavior that carries potential for harm.

Blythe Terrell: The harm part is interesting.

Maggie: The harm part is interesting, and then others were saying, what we’re talking about when we talk about risk are decisions where the outcome is probabilistic and those probabilities are known.

Blythe: Oh, that’s definitely mine.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester: Yeah, but also interesting in itself — whether or not the negativity is a component of it.

Maggie: That was one thing I wondered about.

Blythe: Yeah. Does there have to be something bad?

Christie Aschwanden: Well, it’s interesting. You don’t hear people talking about, I’m buying a lottery ticket — it’s really risky, right? It’s almost like the reverse.

Blythe: Right. I’m at risk of losing $5.

Christie: But it’s really the same concept. I think that example really shows that we think of risk much differently when it’s a positive outcome versus a negative one. And there’s actually some pretty good research on this, looking at [how] people tend to be more risk averse. In other words, they are less willing to accept risk when the risk is an outcome that’s bad. So they’re very worried about bad things, whereas something that’s a good thing, they’re willing to be more risky. You’re more likely to maybe buy that lottery ticket when your “risk” of winning is very low, but if that were reversed and that was the risk of developing a terrible disease or dying or something like that, the odds would have to be greater before you [act].

Blythe: You would think about it very differently.

Anna: The thing that’s funny to me is that a lot of this assumes that there’s a right and a wrong outcome, right? And that’s … not how most decisions in life are.

Christie: I think it’s important here to acknowledge that risk really has sort of value judgments baked in. So we can use probabilities to assign numbers to these things, but that can’t tell you what’s an acceptable risk. That is really a value judgment — and where do you draw the line between dangerous and risky? That’s really something that depends on what your values are.

Maggie: There’s one source [Sukel] talks to in this book — there’s a woman who is trying to evaluate whether she should take this new job opportunity that pays more but is at a startup, as opposed to keeping a stable job that she’s not as excited about. And that was one of those interesting things that stood out to me when we’re talking about optimization. Well, there’s not a right answer to that question.

Blythe: Neither of the outcomes is bad.

Maggie: Right. Neither of the outcomes is bad, so there’s risk.

Anna: You’re also taking a risk whether you take the job or don’t take the job.

Blythe: Right, that’s the other thing —

Maggie: Not acting is also a risk. It’s also an action.

Christie: That’s right. … The decision not to act has certain risks, but we tend to not think of them the same way as acting, and so there are these interesting dynamics [based on whether you feel in control of the risk] … if it’s something that you’re doing or you’re sort of taking on yourself, for instance, like doing a dangerous climb in the mountains or skydiving or something like that, that may feel much different than something like choosing to fly where someone else is piloting the plane, or a risk that is imposed on you. In public health, people tend to be much less willing to take on risks if they feel like it’s being imposed on them from outside versus something where it’s a personal decision, a risk factor like their choice to smoke or not to smoke or exercise.

Maggie: When you think about debates on the Second Amendment and you’re talking about the risks associated with not having a gun in the house versus the risks associated with having a gun in the house, how you feel about those risks is really subjective — and based a lot on what you feel you have control over.

Anna: Exactly, Maggie. I was in the Florida Keys recently doing a story about potentially using this new technology with genetically modified mosquitoes, and it was really interesting because people are really divided on what are the important risks and how to assign those probabilities, essentially. We don’t really know what’s going to happen when you release genetically modified mosquitoes into the environment, though there’s been some research and we’re starting to understand it. I think most scientists feel like the technology is relatively safe, but clearly as a society, we have a lot of questions about genetic modification that are not answered yet. And so a lot of people feel like that is the important risk that we don’t know what to do about this technology, whereas other people are like, but we have these diseases that these mosquitoes are carrying.

Blythe: Right — we know this exists.

Anna: And they’re in Miami, and so that is a more important risk to them. And who gets to decide? So it’s not just the individual. This isn’t a decision that’s going to affect me. This is the whole community and then ultimately is a technology that could be deployed much further.

Christie: That’s an important point, Anna, and I think it’s also important to note that when there’s uncertainty — and there’s certainly uncertainty here with the GMO mosquitoes — people’s level of comfort really varies by their values again. If they feel like it’s something that “some other entity is imposing this uncertainty on me,” that feels a lot scarier to a lot of people than “I’m choosing this thing, and I’m sort of like, I know that it’s uncertain, but I’m kind of hedging my bet, or whatever.”

Blythe Terrell is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.