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All Risks Are Perceived

Author(s): Preston Cline
Posted: August 7, 2007

I agree that we cannot have an adventurous experience without experiencing risk.  It is my opinion, however, that we do a diservice to ourselves, our staff and our clients in maintaining the deceptive concept of actual vs percieved risks.


A few years ago, I wrote an article for the Brathay European Youth Seminar on Risk and Adolescence demonstrating that all risks are perceived.  For the whole article, you can go here: https://www.adventuremanagement.com/resources/general.htm


Even if we had the statistical incident data memorized, the human brain simply doesn’t think in pure probabilistic terms.  In addition, an “Actual Risk” is technically a hazard, regardless of the definition of risk that you might use, because most people see risk as potential rather probable.  


“For years our industry has relied on the “Expert-Judgment Strategy” for dealing with questions of risk.  “That one can always make a legitimate distinction between ‘actual risk’ calculated by experts and so-called ‘perceived risk’ postulated by laypersons.” (Shrader-Frechette 1990) The fact is, however, that environmental risk analysts have already concluded that “ALL risks are perceived”(Shrader-Frechette 1990).  The result is that just because we claim that a particular activity or environment is “safe” doesn’t make it so.  Furthermore, the reliance on the “Expert-Judgment Strategy” by inexperienced staff members has real operational consequences.  For example, if staff members are faced with a decision in the field that falls outside of their training or staff manual they are forced to rely on their decision making skills.  If their premise is “Is it safe?” they are really asking a highly contextual, highly subjective question.  As Wilde points out in “Target Risk” everyone has his or her own internal level of “safe.”(Wilde 1994)“


Much of the challenge that we face in our field is that we, like many of the social sciences, have borrowed much of our lexicon from other scientific fields.  Terms like “risk” and “safe” are treated as though they are binary concepts when in actuality they are highly complex fluid concepts.  I will give you an example.  Gather some of your staff into a room and ask them if they think that your particular program should be safe?  Odds are they will say “Yes!” without any hesitation.  Now ask them if they are safe in the room you are currently in.  Odds are they will hesitate and then ask, well that depends on what you mean by safe?  In the abstract concepts like risk and safe can be binary.  Made personal, they become more complex, this is true for parents, administrators and regulators as well.  It is why, after years of research, I have come to define risk, in the context of education, as “human interaction with uncertainty”.  It is a definition, which supports, rather then conflicts with, our educational missions.


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