Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Real Risks (by Jared Licina)

Guest Post: Jared Licina

Jared is one of those guys that believes sleep is for when you are dead. I got tired just by hearing stories of what he was up to or seeing his name pop up repeatedly on lists of organisers at university. Very involved in debating at school, I was hoping he would be keen on sharing some of his thoughts on this blog, and that is the case. Jared thinks about life deeply and seems to pack in enough for three or four people. On top of that, he is good people.

Jared and I are bottom right, less a decade, some hair and some weight

Real Risk
by Jared Licina

Some of the posts within this blog have looked at how people are notoriously bad at calculating risk in their daily lives, to make logical decisions about what really impacts them. But why, and how can you overcome this? As a public service, we can look at what REALLY is threatening you these days. I started this article as a backlash against some recent adverts for various superfoods, but what I found was interesting...

To begin, why are people so bad at knowing what threatens them? This would seem an important trait at keeping people alive. But while we're good at being aware of immediate danger (e.g. fire, wild animals, GIANT SPIDERS AAARGH) and our reflexes react as such, much more complex problems bring on a problem called attribute substitution. Essentially, humans are bad at correctly calculating complex problems, and so when presented with the challenge, frequently substitute a simplified version of the problem in order to solve it.

For example, when asked "A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?" many people wrongly answer $0.10. Attribute substitution explains this by showing that, rather than work out the sum, subjects parse the sum of $1.10 into a large amount and a small amount, which is easy to do. Whether they feel that is the right answer will depend on whether they check the calculation with their reflective system. This extrapolates to larger and more complex problems by sometimes replacing the numbers altogether. You may not know the exact probability of being killed in a car crash versus a plane crash, but a plane crash seems more horrifying and violent, and so the mind responds by analysing the negative outcome and using that to make the decision, rather than looking at the hard numbers.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman ran a study where some Americans were offered insurance against their own death in a terrorist attack while on a trip to Europe, while another group were offered insurance that would cover death of any kind on the trip. The former group were willing to pay more even though "death of any kind" includes "death in a terrorist attack". Kahneman suggested that the attribute of fear is being substituted for a calculation of the total risks of travel; fear of terrorism was stronger than a general fear of dying on a foreign trip.

A more recent example of this was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised huge amounts of money to fight the disease; but it's interesting when comparing it to actual mortality numbers in the graph below using numbers from the CDC. To be fair, some diseases like ALS are not simply about mortality, but also about the quality of life impact people have when they are living with it. But it shows the interesting discrepancy between the death something causes and how much we spend to fight it.

So when it comes to actual risks, what are out biggest threats? There are many sources to take a deep dive, but the NHS in the UK as a tool for evaluating probability of mortality and putting it in a way everyone can follow. On the site (http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/NHSAtlasofrisk.aspx) you can cut your own data by gender, age and location (in the UK) but the consolidated numbers are below.

So in our public service conclusion, we can focus on 3 easy rules for avoiding death that look at the actual probabilities:

1.      High blood pressure: Do not, under any circumstances, watch the South African Cricket Team play at the Cricket World Cup (I’m kidding AB, you guys were amazing and I’ll be watching as usual next tournament, with a pacemaker). But learn how to be zen in difficult situations that normally lift your blood pressure, and have it checked regularly.

2.      Smoking: Quit now. For every Rand or Dollar or Yemeni Rial you spend on anti-smoking aids, you’re likely to see a massive saving on funds, and a huge reduction in mortality.

3.      High cholesterol: Get this checked every year and be very wary of high cholesterol foods.

Some other categories spike higher based on individual factors; for example, suicide is a large contributor to males in their 30’s who live in London (which is mostly international). So I guess be careful of sad music (and the Cricket World Cup). But rather than focus on dozens of different ways to cheat death, focus on these three and you’ll add a massive boost to your probabilities. So now you can make better decisions. As you can see from the low probability of death by diabetes versus the high one from heart and circulatory disorders, if that chocolate bar helps keep your blood pressure down, it’s the smart choice. All in moderation though.

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