There has been a relentless change over recent years in the use of the words ‘risk’ and ‘danger’, presumably reflecting our preoccupations with the many and varied hazards that we all face daily. First reactions to the accelerating rise in our use of ‘Risk’ might be that we are all becoming increasingly neurotic about the vicissitudes of life. There is some support for this in the findings of behavioral economics which demonstrate that we place a higher value on something that we have (but might lose), than we do on something that we might gain. It seems that loss is more distressing than acquisition is rewarding. The longer we establish security in economic and physical terms, the more it seems that we become concerned about the prospect of losing it – and hence more ‘neurotic’ about risk. But this doesn’t explain why the term ‘danger’ has been in decline over the same period. The explanation for this has to be something to do with the way we use these words hasn’t it?
The word risk seems to have taken on a life of its own. We use it as if it were ‘a thing’ rather than an abstract idea. In fact, risk doesn’t exist at all outside of specific dangers, hazards, disappointments or pit-falls, yet it is often considered rather like an epidemic; something that can be confronted and defeated. We use the term ‘risk’ without necessarily feeling the need to be more specific. The reality is that there is potential risk in everything; everything we do, everything we plan, everything we dream. It is with us from conception, we deal with it every day in one or other of its manifestations (travel, infection, finance, games, engagement with others) and eventually, at the end of life’s journey, we will all succumb to it. The word ‘risk’ is huge in the territory that it covers – everything from hot tea to world war, from a headache to a global epidemic and much, much more. It seems we put it all in the same box and, fed by the media who love a good risk story if they can find one, we fret about it endlessly.
Although in fact a synonym, the word ‘Danger’ is very different. We don’t generalise about it so much. It doesn’t work in the same ‘portmanteau’ way. The first response for most people would be ‘What danger?’ It is unusual to see a sign in the road saying simply ‘danger’, it would usually be clarified in some way, or at least be made clear by the situation. Whatever it is, we address it, work out what we should do, dispense with it immediately and then forget it.
“Where once advice stopped at alerting us to the dangers and guiding us towards the healthy options, now it’s all predicated against dubious life expectancy estimates: drink coffee and live longer, eating or drinking today’s demonized consumable will reduce your life by X months or Y years”
In contrast, the term ‘risk’ is somehow charged with negativity and foreboding. Is it that we have a collective habit of clumping all risk into one very scary bundle and then getting distressed about it? In fact the doom-laden media crank it up all the time. One recent example of this is the determination to express all health statistics in the form of increments of DEATH. Where once advice stopped at alerting us to the dangers and guiding us towards the healthy options, now it’s all predicated against dubious life expectancy estimates: drink coffee and live longer, eating or drinking today’s demonized consumable will reduce your life by X months or Y years. Worst possible scenario headlines such as, “Unhealthy lifestyle can knock 23 years off lifespan” and alerts about percentage reduction in risk without bothering to report how low the base line for the risk in question actually is; they’re all designed to alarm us.
My advice is to take back control. Forget the papers, tune out of the ‘today program’ at the first sign of doom and gloom (who needs that at the start of the day?). Don’t buy into the over generalized, alarmist notion of an ever-rising tide of RISK; just deal with specific challenges as they arise. Be determined to see the positive; as Eric Idle memorably advised “always look on the bright side of life”. My research tells me that it enhances the quality of life by a gazillion smile units!
Geoff Trickey, PCL, July 2017