Have you ever wondered what similarities there are between going to a housewarming party and skydiving or robbing a bank? Well, if there were similarities before, today, there are more, because these three scenarios could all be considered “risky” in today’s society, depending on who you are. 

Risk is a multidisciplinary topic, discussed by researchers across domains, from economics to health sciences. In psychology, our interest in risk covers, among other interpretations, understanding the risks of developing a specific disorder, understanding the difficulties facing what we call “at-risk” populations, or populations susceptible to a particular problem, and understanding “risky” behaviors, or behaviors that may endanger the emotional or physical health and well-being of an individual. Our research group at Lancaster University is interested primarily in the last of these interpretations. We are currently investigating the links between risk-taking and adaptation to the government measures of confinement and social distancing due to COVID-19. If you would like to help us with our research, you can fill out our survey here.

When it comes to risk, the first definition that might come to mind is, “excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences.” It should be noted, however, that risk is an interaction with uncertainty, positive or negative. Risk is unavoidable, and the riskiness of something for any one person depends on a range of factors, including the person’s health. 

One of the topics often discussed is perceived risk as compared to actual risk. The actual risk of something is the calculated risk while the perceived risk focuses more on how we understand that risk, regardless of the numbers. Our perception of high risk is skewed by our own knowledge. For example, we may not consider it risky to traverse shallow streams by walking on rocks sticking out of the water, but there is actually a relatively high risk of slipping on one of the rocks and seriously injuring yourself. Statistically speaking, you may be better off walking on the stream bed and getting your shoes wet.

Daniel Gilbert, psychologist at Harvard, neatly outlined a few principles guiding these perceptions. We may consider intentional events to be of a higher risk, rather than natural phenomena or abstract events. The probability of a terrorist attack may be about the same as being struck by lightning, but we tend to be more frightened of the former. We are also more likely to take action if faced with an emotional or morally salient risks. For example; we are more likely to vote if we feel that our rights have been threatened. Finally, immediate threats may lead to over-reactions, and long-term risks  to slow changes and under-reactions. This is why both global leaders and individual members of the community are slow to react to climate change, for example, and why multiple research projects investigating the potential for pandemics were defunded in the last few years. 

There is, however, always a step from simply perceiving a risk as such, to what we call “risk taking”. Just because you have a certain perception of a situation does not necessarily mean that you will ultimately avoid taking action on that perception. 

One dual-process, memory-based, decision-making theory, called Fuzzy-Trace Theory, introduced by Valerie Reyna into the cognitive psychology literature, explores this link between risk-taking and decision-making. This may sound like a complex topic, but it can be easily broken down to its components. In order to take a risk, a decision has to be made to interact with the “uncertainty” of the situation. That’s why this is a “decision-making” theory. To make decisions, we need to look at our knowledge and perceptions of a given situation, and this is where our memories come in, since all knowledge is based on memory. Finally, Fuzzy-Trace theory suggests that our knowledge and perceptions come in two different, parallel forms- this is what they mean by “dual-process”.

These two forms of memories are called “gist’ and “verbatim” memories. Verbatim memories are shallow, factual memories, such as direct facts, quantitative information, graphs, numbers, pictures,  and any other forms of information. Gist memories, also known as “fuzzy-traces”, are where the theory gets its name. These memories are deep, long-lasting memories, that give us a bottom-line understanding of a situation. According to Fuzzy-Trace Theory, when we learn something or live through a situation, both kinds of memories get created. A verbatim memory may be that we have a 10% chance of developing a certain disease in our lifetime, and a gist memory would be our interpretation and personalized perception of that chance.

Understandably, when we make a decision, we use our memories to do so. Studies have shown that use of gist memories leads to lower risk-taking, and that reasoning with gist generally increases with age.

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Do our current social distancing measures help us perceive a housewarming party as risky?

So what does this have to do with skydiving, robbing a bank, or going to a housewarming party, way back from the beginning of this blog post? Well, skydiving and robbing a bank are activities with a clear potential to be risky. Fortunately, our perceptions of these activities nuance our participation in them. If our overall gist of skydiving is that it is indeed scary, but it’s safe because we have a parachute, we may participate. If we understand that robbing a bank may have a lot of rewards, but the risk of jail or compromising our morals is high, we may not participate. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded that our cognitive systems adapt quickly. Activities that were perceived as low-risk in December, such as going to a housewarming party, are no longer as low-risk today. Opportunities to investigate in real-time how individuals perceive and react to diffuse, global risks (i.e. pandemics, climate change) of this kind are precious and rare. Although the sanitary situation has moved fast, it is still slower than many risks, remains abstract, and is a natural phenomena, fitting the description of risks to which we under-react, according to Daniel Gilbert. 

Where have our perceptions and behaviors settled when it comes to the novel coronavirus? How have government-imposed confinement orders impacted our behaviors and beliefs? These are the questions that interest our research team. 

If you would like to help us answer these questions, the good news is that you can! We are still recruiting for our study investigating these topics. If you choose to participate you will be asked to fill out an entirely anonymous 20-40 minute survey online. You will respond to questions about you, your beliefs, personality, perceptions, and behaviors in the last few months. If you wish to participate, you can fill out our survey at this link, and feel free to share this blog post or our questionnaire with others. We hope to be able to share some answers with you soon. 


About the author:

Julia Lukacs (M.Sc.) is a soon-to-be graduate student in Simon Fraser University’s Clinical Psychology program, in Burnaby (Vancouver area), Canada. She became interested in the topics of risk and decision-making while working on her master’s thesis at Lancaster University, with Dr. Guillermo Perez-Algorta, and this motivated her decision to launch the study on risk perception during the current pandemic. She is passionate about mental health and well-being, and understanding complex human behaviors. You can follow the team’s work through Dr. Guillermo Perez-Algorta, @Guillermo_inUK, on twitter.