Thursday, February 11, 2010

the risk calculus

i've been teaching (yes, me, *teaching*...i know, but that's another story for another time) some elements about the nature of risk and how humans deal with it. there's quite an extensive literature on this, particularly in the social sciences, since it addresses the subject of how human beings perceive danger and how they then choose to act in response; things that sometimes seem illogical or rational from one perspective sometimes don't seem so when view another way, and what may be deemed acceptable risk to one person may not be so to another.

why i'm talking about this here, on a blog primarily devoted to endurance sports and the life lessons that come from them, is something that will become evident--just stay with me.

i've presented a more simplified nature of risk, using conceptual fundamentals i learned from various fields to give a basic introduction of how to think about risk. for lack of a better-sounding (i.e., catchy) name, i'll use the same term a law school professor once gave to me: "the risk calculus" (it actually has little or nothing to do with calculus, but rather indicates more the process of calculation that goes on in each individual person's mind when facing a given problem...of course, why my professor didn't just use the term "the risk calculation" is also a story for another day).

the risk calculus at the most basic level can be expressed as a rough equation:
I is defined as risk
u is defined as the probability of an harmful event occurring
R is the magnitude of the damage caused by that harmful event
what social scientists draw from this is that there are some events whose magnitude of damage is so great (e.g., death or extinction) that no minute level of probability will be tolerated, and that people will be averse to engage in these kinds of activities. similarly, there are some things that even though the probability of the harmful event occurring is high, the magnitude of damage is so low that people are willing to engage in the activity anyway.

but what social scientists also take from this is that this equation, while presenting an objective mathematical representation of risk concepts, still involves variables that are dependent on subjective perceptions of reality. you see, different people have different perceptions of just what probability is too high or too low, and likewise have different perceptions of just what magnitude of damage is too great or too insignificant to worry about.

and this is why even though we describe the risk calculus with a common formula, the application of that formula varies by individual. which is why some people refuse to take ocean swims because of a fear of fatal shark attacks even though the probability of that event is statistically very low, and some people regularly ride bicycles in rush hour traffic even though the probability of a crash with a car is statistically non-trivial.

it's also the reason why some athletes appear to be so reckless, so thoughtless, so fearless in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, while others just simply crumble. because some athletes, when confronted by something that ordinary people consider to have a high magnitude of damage and/or a high probability of occurring, just don't perceive such a something in the same way. in short, they just don't follow the same risk calculus as everyone else, and proceed without any trepidation to impede their reflexes, their motivation, their attention, or even their overall mental condition. they, in effect, are able to maintain a greater peace of mind.

i found something that i think demonstrates this, and in a way more clear and more specific to athletes than anything i've encountered elsewhere (including the social sciences):
the article asserts that some athletes seem to have an edge over other competitors, and that the difference between these achievers over their peers isn't so much their conditioning, training, background, or genetics, but instead their minds. in particular, it points out several things about these elite athletes' state of mind: they tend to avoid self-pity, they tend to possess positive outlooks, they tend to recognize the nature of risk, and they tend to be able to adapt in the face of whatever harms or probabilities may occur in the course of a race. they are, in other words, able to maintain a greater peace of mind.

which goes back to what i'm thinking...the reason they have such peace of mind is because of how they perceive risk and engage the risk calculus: they are confronted with the same variables as everyone else, but their minds perceive the nature of those conditions differently.

and that--more than anything else, more than the conditioning, training, background, or genetics--seems to be enough to make the difference.

it's the mind. performance is in the mind.

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