Geoff Trickey explains why it is important for decision-making teams to include people with a variety of risk dispositions
You only have to have walked down your local high street during the past few months to see how different we all are in our perceptions of, reactions to and management of risk. In response to COVID-19, many see face masks as providing safety and protection, while for others they represent an affront to civil liberty. While some enthusiastically adhere to and enforce social distancing rules, others casually ignore them. Many have visited pubs and flocked to the beach while others have stayed at home. These different perspectives, in most cases, will reflect sincere beliefs and convictions. For this reason, they can breed serious antagonism, with people even occasionally coming to blows. What does this tell us?
Complementary risk dispositions
The way we deal with risk and uncertainty is one of the most significant differences between individual people. Risk dispositions are ‘wired in’; some people are naturally apprehensive and cautious, while others are fearless and carefree. Our familiarity with this diversity is reflected in the richness of the vocabulary we use to describe and characterise ourselves and other people: ‘reckless’, ‘apprehensive’, ‘conforming’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘conservative’, ‘anxious’, ‘fearful’, ‘controlling’, ‘adventurous’, ‘intrepid’. We recognise these traits in ourselves and in other people; they are widely dispersed and deeply rooted.
These characteristics are significant because they impact all of our decisions and the gloriously individualistic ways in which we live our lives. Humanity’s diversity of risk dispositions has played a crucial part in our survival over hundreds of thousands of years. Decision-making is driven by our hopes, aspirations, fears and emotions, as well as our need to make sense of our experiences and our world.
The Risk Type Compass (bit.ly/38sQvUV) enables us to measure these attributes, charting a 360° spectrum of risk dispositions based on permutations of these factors. This compass model is segmented into eight risk types, each of which sees life very differently.
This leaves many of us surprised and confused by the seemingly improbable risk behaviours of people who see life through their own different but equally convincing lenses. These different perspectives on life are just another example of nature’s variability; this is the reality of the normal distribution. When it comes to reaction to risk and uncertainty, the variations between individuals are remarkable and may seem fascinatingly improbable to disparate risk types.
As it turns out, this a very good thing. Faced with the unpredictable opportunities and challenges of day-to-day survival, this diversity between extremes has equipped humanity with a highly effective repertoire of survival strategies. This is at the core of our nature. We weigh things up, consider the pros and cons and make decisions. Those who achieve the right balance between opportunities and risks succeed and survive. Those who fail to achieve this ‘sweet spot’ have a tough time. Aspiring and striving in the face of uncertainty has always been fundamental to the human condition.
Risk types in action
We have seen these individual risk type differences playing out locally and on the global stage. The reactions of neighbours, colleagues, family members and friends are echoed across the world as different states and nations wrestle with policy decisions and adopt very different approaches to epidemic management. It would seem obvious that policy should be guided by science, but reactions to COVID-19 illustrate that certainty has not been a conspicuous part of the process. In its absence, professional reactions have varied dramatically, governments have reacted differently, and computer-modelled predictions have been all over the place.
If anything, the vastly different ‘solutions’ adopted revealed more about the decision-makers and decision-making process than about the virus. Government decisions may be influenced by many things, including politics, managerialism, the need to ‘save face’, and public opinion. Throughout all of that confusion and uncertainty, the risk types of the people and teams making decisions will have been a persistent influence every step of the way.
“Decision-makers need insight into their own risk dispositions, and teams need to be aware of their balance of risk types”
In his 2017 book The End of Alchemy, former Bank of England governor Mervyn King said: “The fundamental point about radical uncertainty is that, if we don’t know what the future might hold, we don’t know, and there is no point in pretending otherwise.” His point is that some uncertainties simply cannot
be resolved. In the book, he addresses some of the quandaries that characterise the boundaries of risk and uncertainty. Referring to the presumption that statistical probabilities can be calculated to address every instance of our imperfect knowledge of the future, he quotes the economist John Maynard Keynes on the subject of ‘uncertain knowledge’: “About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.”
King calls this ‘radical uncertainty’, and viruses take us into this territory. When you have nothing solid to go on, there is no point in persisting with complex but tenuous quantitative predictions. This has been demonstrated innumerable times in just about every realm of prediction – from engineering to financial forecasts to opinion polls to epidemics. Even the most sophisticated mathematics available, backed by massive programming power, cannot spin gold-plated certainty out of dubious and uncertain fragments.
In the current pandemic, experts established the identity of the pathogen very quickly – a virus called SARS-CoV-2 – yet the implications of COVID-19 remained unknown. We didn’t know how infectious it would be, we didn’t have a definitive list of symptoms, we didn’t know how long people would remain infectious, how damaging the virus might be, how it was transmitted, who would be most vulnerable, how much immunity already existed in the population, or the biochemistry of the antibodies and how much protection they would provide. On all of these points and more we had no alternative but to wait for the data to accumulate.
Of course, decisions have to be made even in cases of radical uncertainty. The emphasis here has to be less on the immediate unknowable risk and more on the decision-making processes – and the decision-makers. Decisions need to be made within a framework that recognises the nature of the instinctive bias arising from any individual’s natural risk dispositions. Adventurous risk types and Wary risk types, for example, go about decision-making in profoundly different ways – as do we all.
Self awareness and group awareness are the key. Decision-makers need insight into their own risk dispositions; teams need to be aware of over-representation or under-representation of particular risk types in the group. The aim must be to achieve balance: for example, ensuring that precedence and tradition are questioned while the status quo is also well represented; that challenge and innovation are championed while awareness of vulnerability or threat is heightened; that there is a willingness to think the unthinkable as well as to rein in eccentricity. These are all examples of creative group tensions that are an antidote to groupthink and risk polarisation.
In combination, these ‘process requirements’ for balance and diversity in the decision-making body have to be mirrored when communicating with the public at large. Message recipients, too, are varied in their risk dispositions. To be convincing and reassuring, the messaging of developments and conclusions must be effective across a very risk-diverse population that includes people with very different expectations. Success will be measured not only by what has been achieved, but also by the extent to which the divergent concerns of people with very different risk dispositions have successfully been addressed.
Geoff Trickey is founder and CEO of Psychological Consultancy Limited (PCL)