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Why Do We Take Stupid Risks?

Posted in on
June 29, 2021

Author: Ron Dembo

Garry Hoy, a 39-year-old senior partner with the Canadian law firm of Holden Day Wilson LLP had a party trick. For any of his colleagues who’d watch, he’d run full-tilt into a floor-to-ceiling window on the 24th floor of the beautiful Mies van der Rohe TD Center building just to demonstrate its strength. It was tricky because of the radiators which you had to jump over, but he loved making everyone gasp as he bounced back and landed safely on his feet.

As he dressed for work on July 9, 1993, simultaneously gulping his coffee down and rummaging through his fridge, he thought he’d attend the party the firm was giving for new articling students later that afternoon.

Hoy, who had done his party trick a hundred times before, took a run at the window to the horror of all the students in the room. It held, everybody laughed and breathed that familiar sigh of relief. Then he took a second run. This time, however, the glass popped out of the frame, sending Hoy free-falling to his death.

Hoy was using his ‘unbroken’ history of successful window bouncing to predict that the window would hold. But had he consulted with the city structural engineer Bob Greer prior to his (n+1)th try, the response might have been a wake-up call: “I don’t know of any building code in the world that would allow a 160-pound man to run up against a glass and withstand it.” Yet what drove Hoy to be so reckless?

Our Capacity for Denial

Well, he isn’t the only person in the world to take a seemingly incomprehensible risk. Every day, millions of people smoke cigarettes and scoff down junk food, perfectly aware that such habits will lead to an early death. Meanwhile, others undertake extremely high-risk activities just for an adrenaline rush, like skydiving, racing supercars, and free-solo rock climbing.

We apparently have a knack for repressing our anxiety when it suits us – to deny the glaring risks of an activity seemingly for minimal substantial gain. And sometimes we’ll even laugh in the face of it. Look at the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, for example, with its garish menu items including “Quadruple Bypass Burgers” and “Flatliner Fries” (whose spokesperson  recently died from health complications related to obesity).

It’s in Our DNA

From an evolutionary perspective, you’d think we’d be more cautious. We know that all humans fear death; we have to for self-preservation. As Ernest Becker proposed in the 1970s,

“Early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about their situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism that had a high survival value. The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even when there are none.”

But by that same token, as the better-known half of Becker’s argument goes, we also possess an innate ability to deny the fact of our own mortality and so consequently suppress our fear of it. We are capable of upholding the ultimate paradox: “the ever-present fear of normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our utter obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life.”

Had we not such a talent for denial, we would be a constant jumble of nerves so immobilized by fear that we’d have ceased to exist as a species a long time ago. Or as scientists Ajit Varki and Danny Bower put it, “the resulting overwhelming fear would be a dead-end evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness.”

Risk Thinking, the Fine Balance

It is our inherent ability to balance these two conflicting forces that I call “natural risk thinking” – a skill that all of us have to analyze our surroundings, assess different risks and the probabilities associated with them, and navigate between the bets we are willing to take and those we wish to avoid or mitigate.

Every day we intuitively make complex risk management decisions in the blink of an eye: do I cross the road now and save time, or do I wait for the green light? Do I ask my boss for a raise or keep my head down? And in the age of COVID-19, do I risk going to the shops or order takeout?

Most of the time we risk think appropriately: we balance anxiety and denial. But to return to Hoy’s unfortunate jump from the 24th floor of his office building, it seems his capacity for the latter was working too strongly. This happens to all of us from time to time. Our answer to the great paradox of the human condition is sometimes simply to avoid thinking about it. And so we jump from airplanes willingly, we stand on the edges of cliffs, and we try to impress our colleagues.

But those articling students who were watching Hoy, who gasped on his first attempt, were clearly able to analyze the danger – to realize the slim potential for a catastrophic downside. They were intuitive risk thinkers. Sometimes, all it takes is a fresh set of eyes.

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