Mar 162011

I wrote a post about managing risk with lesbian sex, and mentioned that I should write a post about how people perceive risk. This is that post.

So. The big news (<– facetious) is that people’s practical version of "rationality" is not the same as logical rationality.

We make decisions about risk – and I’ll be focusing on health risks here – based on the potential outcomes, and our perceptions of those outcomes are colored by three variables: time, certainty, and valence. This is the reward matrix.

TIME: When might a consequence or outcome occur? SOONER consequences have more impact on decision-making than DELAYED consequences.

CERTAINTY: How LIKELY is any given outcome or consequence? The more certain it is, the more impact it has on decision-making.

VALENCE: How intense, either positive or negative, will that consequence be? The more intense, the greater the impact.

Imagine a view of a landscape – trees and things over a wide, deep vista, right? Trees that are farther away appear smaller, even though they’re not, really. And the big tree in front of you makes more of an impact than the little squirrel still like a statue in that tree, even though that tree can’t do anything to do you and that squirrel could jump on your face.

Time is like physical distance, certainty is like size. See it? What we pay attention to is determined not by ACTUAL importance but by PERCEIVED importance.

For example, smoking. If you are addicted to nicotine and light a cigarette right now, you will INSTANTLY, FOR SURE, get a MASSIVELY POSITIVE rush of the drug your body craves. And possibly, 50 years from now, you might DIE OF EMPHYSEMA. Whereas if you quit smoking, you have a giant wall of misery immediately before you, all in the name of preventing something that wasn’t necessarily going to happen anyway.

With sexual risk, it’s similar. If you want to have sex when there’s a risk of infection, and you have that sex, you will very soon, very likely, get the pleasure of sex. And you might – MIGHT – get an infection. And how bad would that be? Well there’s a lot of stigma, so socially pretty bad, and physically some infections are worse than others. Okay. And at the same time, if you try to introduce protection there’s the potential loss of that sexual opportunity, not to mention the untold awkwardness of pulling out the condom or having the conversation about infection etc – DEFINITELY, RIGHT NOW, AWKWARD.

You see the problem? We’re less influenced by long term consequences than by short term consequences, even though those long-term consequences might be EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.

Indeed, our ability to recognize potential long-term consequence – to see into the future, if you will – is one of the things that makes us powerful as a species. But it has less influence on us than we might like.

There’s another problem with the way we perceive risk, related to the difference between thinking about the world from the individual level rather than the population level. Which is something I’ve begun to touch on, but I’ll elaborate further another time.

So. There’s the rub, as the man said, and it’s important to be aware of. Not that I think it’ll make anyone less likely to make irrational choices.