Risk Assessment Thinking Errors

If you absolutely knew that you were short a tool for a specific job or were short a certain weapon you needed to overcome an enemy, wouldn’t you be keen to obtain that tool or weapon BEFORE you engaged in whatever activity required it? Of course you would.

Would you blame a coworker for not doing a job properly if you knew they weren’t provided the tools necessary to do it. Of course you wouldn’t.

And yet, there have been numerous times in my life when I’ve nonetheless gone off unprepared, incorrect, or expecting another to be so prepared when I knew they were incapable of it. I would not ask a blind man to read the paper to me, yet I expected my teenage daughter to understand the danger she’d put herself in when she’d walk to the mall without telling anyone where she was going. I could assess the risk better than she could because she was not yet in full possession of risk assessment tools.

Our brains develop and evolve over time – with the prefrontal cortex the last brain region to mature (Pubmed). We aren’t born adults – we’re born children. We develop and learn through our childhood years into our teens and adulthood. The last brain area to develop is the neocortex, a part of our brain that (very basically) controls what we don’t do – it functions as our “Whoa! Wait a second!” mechanism.

One function of the neocortex is the ability to accurately assess risk (so we know when to put on the behavioral brakes). We don’t fully develop that brain area until we’re a few years into adulthood (21-26). Thus explaining the propensity for children to dodge into danger, for teens to drive beyond their skill level, and for adults to continue smoking even when they are sure they’ll die earlier if they do.

Due to a number of factors, humans are fairly poor at risk assessment. That’s why we study it – so maybe we might improve with understanding. We also employ computers to assist us.

Oddly, we tend to THINK we understand the risks involved in a situation or condition, yet all too often we demonstrate with our behaviors that we clearly don’t, and yet interpret our failures as evidence of our understanding (known colloquially as 20/20 rear vision).

Perhaps due to our lack of brain maturity, teens have developed a capacity to overestimate their abilities and deny thinking errors – particularly biases. Thus, it seems every generation tends to repeat the very same basic behavioral patterns during their [stressful] teen years –

  • “I/We know better than those who clearly do know better.” (risk lessening through misattribution)
  • Trusting life-altering advice from peers (who don’t know either) rather than from elders (who may know). (risk lessening through source errors)
  • “I’ll prove everyone else wrong.” and “I’ll show them!” (risk lessening through generality and egocentric thinking)
  • “The rules don’t apply to me.” (risk lessening due to exception from consequence)
  • “I will be the exception to the rule.” (risk lessening through Gamblers Fallacy)
  • “I am invincible.” (risk lessening by denial)
  • Wait and see, give it time and it will probably correct itself (hope for change from external forces – natural, man-made or miraculous processes to “fix” it) outside self involvement.
  • and etc.

Young children tend to trust their parents – which makes perfect sense since it’s patently obvious that parents would know more about the world than their children having had more experience and training. Giving regard to the authoritative aspect of knowledge and/or wisdom of those who are more experienced is a tried and true method for learning with less risk of failure.

By the time we turn 13 or so, we realize that our parents are fallible humans with thinking errors and all – pedestal lost. Lacking some maturity in brain areas associated with risk assessment and evaluation, we might come to the belief in our teens that WE who know nothing are the supreme wisdom of the universe – because our parents are no longer as smart, wise, intelligent, unerring, as we thought they were. It is an IF-THEN association thinking error.

Teens –
When you think your parent or other adult is acting “unfair” towards you – particularly when you hear your inner voice say something along the lines of, “S/he doesn’t know/understand me.” – maybe it’s time to stop, breathe, reconsider – and wonder – “Could I be wrong here?” (with the presupposition in the affirmative) and “What am I lacking?” and “Assuming s/he loves me, why do I think they don’t?” – offering you an opportunity to gain quite a bit of wisdom at very little risk (other than maybe to your young ego).

Adults –
Give your teens some time. They aren’t being malicious when they fail to assess an obvious (to you) risk – like forgetting to tell you they’re off to the mall to meet “friends,” for example. Rather, they are INCAPABLE of making an accurate assessment of the risk due to a brain deficiency beyond their and your control. They require TIME to mature. Maybe it’s time for you to stop, breathe, reconsider – and wonder – “How might I have erred in my assessment of this risk to my child?” Even though you have the brain maturity, you don’t necessarily have the brain training necessary to utilize it well – remember, we use computers sometimes because we acknowledge our weakness at risk assessment.

In the end, perhaps we might all get along with one another better were we to adopt the concept, “I could be incorrect in my assessment of risk in this situation.” Then investigate specifics from the presupposition that you are probably incorrect up front. Maybe investigate alternatives to your present hypothesis concerning the evidence before you – like why you are holding this evidence in a place of fear and danger.

As an adult, I have the capability to assess every presentation of risk as an opportunity for learning and maybe awakening. Unless… [continued in next post]

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