*Risk Assessment Basics*
Putting Things in Perspective
By: Fairplay
03 December 2006

You may be new to a survivor mindset or you may be a seasoned expert with several years of experience. Either way we all are susceptible to external influences and internal predispositions that affect our abilities to assess risk and establish appropriate responses. My objective is to become more aware of the impact of these influences and predispositions in order to achieve a better balance between possibilities and probabilities. Even though we are the only species that understands the concept of risk we sometimes have a confusing habit of worrying about possibilities while ignoring the probabilities. Avian flu is certainly a possibility yet we have to be cajoled into getting a flu shot to protect us from a flu that annually kills around 36,000 people in the US. We worry about mad cows and E. coli when a heart attack may be a more likely probability given your genetic heritage, diet, and current healthy or unhealthy habits such as smoking. Does that mean that we should ignore the possibilities and focus only on the probabilities? Should we focus on the probabilities and ignore the possibilities? What are some of the things that contribute to this confusion? It is a complex mathematical problem to sensibly calculate real world risks and we may do so poorly but it is something that we can learn to do better.

We are wired with a fight or flight response, an evolutionary advantage that probably explains why we are still here enjoying the blue skies of the modern world. Our remote ancestors benefited from this fight or flight response more frequently than we probably do in the normal circumstances of the modern world. No doubt it still comes in handy on occasion when that shadow may be an intruder and our wiring permits a split second response to what is perceived as danger, throwing our bodies into a high gear response mode. The problem is that our input comes in different forms most of the time today. The old hard wired response system is just not well integrated with the higher brain functions requiring thoughtful reflection to analyze the risk such as we get from the evening news. There is no evolutionary advantage if the news story you just heard about E coli in spinach or a possible terrorist attack throws you into a fight or flight response. The main difference is time. We have time to analyze the threat and we may over think it or under think it. That is perhaps where the problem occurs. So what are some of the things that affect out risk assessment processes?

The fear factor plays a part in our assessment. To an animal in the jungle it makes little difference if its demise is illness or in the jaws of a lion, the end result is the same. We as more reflective thinking beings may dread one demise more than another. You may fear a violent attack more than a chronic long term illness and as a result be well prepared with weapons and training while putting little emphasis on long term care or disability insurance. It is only human nature and there are no correct answers. However being aware of a bias can help you correct for it.

Unfamiliar threats can cause us to over react. Sometimes an over reaction is beneficial, for example in the recent case when all spinach was pulled off the store shelves when it was unclear which brand was contaminated with E coli.

If we become used to a threat occurring on a regular basis, like a blaring car alarm, we may become habituated to ignore and not respond at all when a response is needed. Such is the danger when an alert level is maintained at a high level for a long period of time. We get the occasional wake up alarm and sometimes we treat it like the snooze alarm and go back to sleep instead of following through with the necessary action to adequately respond to the threat.

Having an illusion of control can bias our thinking. After 911 there was a spike in deaths from automobile deaths as people preferred having an illusion of control at the wheel of their automobiles even with statistically higher risk as compared to a passive passenger on a commercial airliner with statistically lower risk.

Optimism bias can ruin your day too. The person that crashed their car because their attention was diverted by the conversation on their cell phone won’t happen to me because I’m a better driver. Task overloading affects everyone. The greater the number of tasks you have to do and the complexity of those tasks reduce the likelihood that you will be able to do each of the tasks well. Yes, we all have different abilities but it is better to underestimate than to overestimate.


How do we do better? Here are some things that we can do to improve the odds that we will appropriately assess the risk in question.

Look up the numbers. Take the time to do the research to understand the real risk. The idyllic view from the slopes of the volcano or from the white sand beach does not necessarily include the lava flow or the hurricane. Risk assessment is a very localized and individualistic task. Here is an attention getter from





Location, location, location…

Are you located in an area susceptible to natural disasters such as earthquakes, wind, hurricanes, fire, or floods?

A good very basic resource is FEMA’s free book, "Are You Ready?"


USGS Seismic Hazard Maps provide a good start to understand your risk from earthquakes and can be found at:


41 out of 50 states in the US have had flood map revisions since 2004. A good starting point in assessing your location for flood risk is:


What is the crime in your area? A good resource is "Crime in the United States"



Question the experts. Officials who provide hard, honest numbers and a citizenry that takes the time to understand them would not only mean a smarter nation, but a safer one.

Examine the cost of time. If you are in a split second life or death situation, instinct and training takes over. However for most situations you have the time to think before you respond. If you are involved in an accident: How do you respond to a question from a LEO? Think first! A hasty response without adequate thought of the consequences should be avoided. Follow the Rule of Holes: If you find yourself in one stop digging.

How to apportion your budget between essential finances and building your preparations? This does not suggest that ignoring a risk or procrastinating about a solution is desirable either. Analysis paralysis is the other end of the same continuum.

Look for a balance that will improve your position without taxing your resources while keeping focus on your objectives. Remove the flaws from the objectives first. Probably 95% of risk assessment and being prepared is nothing more than just old fashioned common sense.

We can not realistically expect to be rescued from catastrophic situations and even more importantly we can not expect to be rescued from ourselves, so personal risk analysis is worth the effort.

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