Last updated: 23 December 1998
When all actions are mathematically calculated, they also take on a
In risk perception, humans act less as individuals and more as social
beings who have internalized social pressures and delegated their decision-making
processes to institutions. They manage as well as they do, without knowing
the risks they face, by following social rules on what to ignore: institutions
are their problem-simplifying devices.
Risk-assessment techniques are the expert answer to the question of
how much wealth should be sacrificed for how much health.
Science and risk assessment cannot tell us what we need to know about
threats of danger since they explicitly try to exclude moral ideas about
the good life. Where responsibility starts, they stop.
It seems that rational human behavior does not use elaborate calculation
for making crisis decisions, nor does it separate out risks one by one
or two by two. Rather it focuses on the infrastructure of everyday comportment,
setting up the conditions for surviving crises by building flexible, feasible
aims into a way of life.
The satisfactions in smoking and drinking and driving are not private
pleasures. Even if they were, habits would still be hard to change because
they are locked into life styles. But most habits, good and bad, are social,
rooted in community life.
... people select their awareness of certain dangers to conform with
a specific way of life ... (...) To alter risk selection and risk perception,
then, would depend on changing the social organization.
Each form of social life has its own typical risk portfolio. Common
values lead to common fears. (...) Risk taking and risk aversion, shared
confidence and shared fears, are part of the dialogue on how best to organize
Medical attention has always been a risk for the patient. Now it is
a big risk for the doctor as well.
No doubt there are risks that we would rather not run but that we undertake
in order to gain other benefits. People do live in Los Angeles, for example,
not for the privilege of breathing in smog but in order to take advantage
of its natural beauty, warm climate, job opportunities, and so on. Life's
choices, after all, often come in bundles of goods and bads, which have
to be taken whole.
Any attempt to shape the world and modify human personality in order
to create a self-chosen pattern of life involves many unknown consequences.
Human destiny is bound to remain a gamble, because at some unpredictable
time and in some unforeseeable manner nature will strike back. The multiplicity
of determinants which affect biological systems limits the power of the
experimental method to predict their trends and behavior.
Man could escape danger only by renouncing adventure, by abandoning
that which has given to the human condition its unique character and genius
among the rest of living things.
... men as a rule are more preoccupied with the dangers that threaten
their life than interested in the biological forces on which they depend
for a constructive existence.
As long as mankind is made up of independent individuals with free will,
there cannot be any social status quo. Men will develop new urges, and
these will give rise to new problems, which will require ever new solutions.
Human life implies adventure, and there is no adventure without struggles
You know you're in a developed country when: you lift a phone and you
hear a dial tone; you dial a number and it rings at your first try; you
take the 9:50 flight and the plane leaves at 9:50; you come to a party
two hours late and the guests are leaving; you got to an office and people
are working; you step on the street and cars screech to a halt; you drive
on a freeway and everyone stays on his lane; you open the faucet and water
comes out; you switch on the light and there is light.
Life without risk would be like chilli without heat - edible but bland.
The traditional focus of health promotion campaigns on individual risk
should, by now, be seen as only a small part of health promotion strategy.
High-consequence risks form one particular segment of the generalised
'climate of risk' characteristic of late modernity - one characterised
by regular shifts in knowledge-claims as mediated by expert systems.
The risk climate of modernity is thus unsettling for everyone: no one
High-consequence risks have a distinctive quality. The more calamitous
the hazards they involve, the less we have any real experience of what
we risk: for if things 'go wrong', it is already too late.
Risk concerns future happenings - as related to present practices -
and the colonising of the future therefore opens up new settings of risk,
some of which are institutionally organised.
Life-planning takes account of a 'package' of risks rather than calculating
the implications of distinct segments of risky behaviour. Taking certain
risks in pursuit of a given lifestyle, in other words, is accepted to be
within 'tolerable limits' as part of the overall package.
[C]ultivated risk-taking represents an 'experiment with trust' (in the
sense of basic trust) which consequently has implications for an individual's
self-identity. (...) In cultivated risk-taking, the encounter with danger
and its resolution are bound up in the same activity, whereas in other
consequential settings the payoff of chosen strategies may not be seen
for years afterwards.
The sustaining of life, in a bodily sense as well as in the sense of
psychological health, is inherently subject to risk.
To live in the universe of high modernity is to live in an environment
of chance and risk, the ineveitable concomitants of a system geared to
the domination of nature and the reflexive making of history. Fate and
destiny have no formal part to play in such a system, which operates (as
a matter of principle) via what I shall call open human control of the
natural and social worlds.
Thinking in terms of risk certainly has its unsettling aspects (...),
but it is also a means of seeking to stabilise outcomes, a mode of colonising
the future. The more or less constant, profound and rapid momentum of change
characteristic of modern institutions, coupled with structured reflexivity,
mean that on the level of everyday practice as well as philosophical [Seitenwechsel]
interpretation, nothing can be taken for granted. What is acceptable/appropriate/recommended
behaviour today may be seen differently tomorrow in the light of altered
circumstances or incoming knowledge-claims.
The difficulties of living in a secular risk culture are compounded
by the importance of lifestyle choices.
Abstract systems depend on trust, yet they provide none of the moral
rewards which can be obtained from personalised trust, or were often available
in traditional settings from the moral frameworks within which everyday
life was undertaken. Moreover, the wholesale penetration of abstract systems
into daily life creates risks which the individual is not well placed to
confront; high-consequence risks fall into this category. Greater interdependence,
up to and including globally independent systems, means greater vulnerability
when untoward events occur that affect those systems as a whole.
The thesis that risk assessment itself is inherently risky is nowhere
better borne out than in the area of high-consequence risks.
'Taking charge of one's life' involves risk, because it means confronting
a diversity of open possibilities.
The negative connotation of the word risk creates a fundamental problem
in the notion of 'risk taking', namely differences in perception regarding
the inherent value or worth of some action or behaviour between the 'risk
taker' and the risk assessor. Risk taking implies intent on the part of
the actor, but the intentions of the action are not fully appreciated or
acknowledged with this one-sided view of risk. The risk assessor judges
the actions of another individual to be harmful (or bad?). The (real or
perceived) benefits to the individual of smoking, eating, drinking, driving,
flying, or whatever, are not considered. The health-enhancing aspects of
the benefit of some action to the individual may more than compensate for
its health-threatening aspects (rational behaviour?). The notion of risk
as wager - assessing both losses and gains - would seem a more appropriate
conception of risk in relation to 'risk taking'. Analysis of both positive
and negative aspects of behaviour would provide the 'risk taker' an opportunity
to play an active role in labelling and evaluating 'risk', thereby wresting
exclusive power to determine 'risk' away from an external 'expert'.
'Safety', the wife of Pablo said. 'There is no such thing as safety.
There are so many seeking safety here now that they make a great danger.
In seeking safety now you lose all.'
Life is short, science is long; opportunity is elusive, experiment is
dangerous, judgement is difficult.
The problems raised by alcohol and tobacco cannot, it goes without saying,
be solved by prohibition. The universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence
is not to be abolished by slamming the currently popular Doors in the Wall.
The only reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hope of
inducing men and women to exchange their old bad habits for new and less
harmful ones. Some of these other, better doors will be social and technological
in nature, others religious or psychological, others dietetic, educational,
athletic. But the need for the frequent chemical vacations from intolerable
selfhood and repulsive surroundings will undoubtedly remain.
But the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be
quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure,
happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance
yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things,
of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever
vainly, to comprehend.
Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so
monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend
themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the
principal appetites of the soul.
We now spend a good deal more on drink and smoke than we spend on education.
This, of course, is not surprising. The urge to escape from selfhood and
the environment is in almost everyone almost all the time.
In youth we take egregious risks because death has no reality for us.
Youth goes caparisoned in immortality. It is only in middle age that we
are shadowed by the awareness of the transitoriness of life.
In a society in which modern advertising and merchandising techniques,
government crop subsidies, peer-group pressure, and the addictive nature
of the substance all conspire to encourage cigarette smoking, how voluntary
is this high-risk habit?
Just as a moral distinction is drawn between "those at risk"
and "those posing a risk", health education routinely draws a
distinction between the harm caused by external causes out of the individual's
control and that caused by oneself. Lifestyle risk discourse overturns
the notion that health hazards in postindustrial society are out of the
individual's control. On the contrary, the dominant theme of lifestyle
risk discourse is the responsibility of the individual to avoid health
risks for the sake of his or her own health as well as the greater good
Risk discourse in public health can be separated loosely into two perspectives.
The first views risk as a health danger to populations that is posed by
environmental hazards such as pollution, nuclear waste, and toxic chemical
residues. In this conceptualization of risk, the health threat is regarded
as a hazard that is external, over which the individual has little control.
The common response to such risks on the part of the layperson is anger
at governmental authorities, feelings of powerlessness and anxiety, and
concern over the seemingly deliberate and unregulated contamination of
the environment by the industry.
Health education emphasizing risks is a form of pedagogy, which, like
other forms, serves to legitimize ideologies and social practices. Risk
discourse in the public health sphere allows the state, as the owner of
knowledge, to exert power of the bodies of its citizens. Risk discourse,
therefore, especially when it emphasizes lifestyle risks, serves as an
effective Foucauldian agent of surveillance and control that is difficult
to challenge because of its manifest benevolent goal of maintaining standards
of health. In doing so, it draws attention away from the structural causes
No longer is the body a temple to be worshipped as the house of God;
it has become a commodified and regulated object that must be strictly
monitored by its owner to prevent lapses into health-threatening behaviors
as identified by risk discourse. For those with the socioeconomic resources
to indulge in risk modification, this discourse may supply the advantages
of a new religion; for others, this discourse has the potential to create
anxiety and guilt, to promote hopelessness and fear of the future.
We need to remain to some degree opaque and unpredictable, particularly
when threatened by the predictive practices of others. The satisfaction
of this need to at least some degree supplies another necessary condition
for human life being meaningful in the ways that it is and can be. It is
necessary, if life is to be meaningful, for us to be able to engage in
long-term projects, and this requires predictability; it is necessary,
if life is to be meaningful, for us to be in possession of ourselves and
not merelz to be the creations of other people's projects, intentions and
desires, and this requires unpredictability. We are thus involved in a
world in which we are simultaneously trying to render the rest of society
predictable and ourselves unpredictable, to devise generalisations which
will capture the behaviour of others and to cast our own behaviour into
forms which will elude the generalisations which others frame.
Risking requires energy and wellness. Aspects such as motivation and
commitment are energy sources and their absence energy depleters. Stress
can be a positive source when it is channeled into productive energy. Rest
and relaxation, exercise, and appropriate diet all reduce stress, improve
well-being, and keep you fit for successful risking.
Calculated risking is a mandate for a dynamic life.
Risking means eagerly looking for chances to bring more joy, purpose,
self-esteem, zest, accomplishment, and love into our lives.
Successful risk-taking means that you can't play it safe and you can't
keep tight control over all eventualities. Courage helps control fear and
makes it possible to move through the fear to achieve your goal.
But psychologist William James summed it up when he said, "It is
only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all."
In the aftermath of your risk-taking, you need to examine what you did
and why and decide if it was worth it. No one but you can fully evaluate
what went on and what you got out of it. Only you can weigh the outcomes
against your needs and best interests.
Risking exacts payment, to be sure, but the cost you pay for not risking
is even higher. Without taking a risk, it is impossible to experience real
love, acquire true power, or gain prestige.
When you risk you allow yourself to be vulnerable to potential injury
or loss. But when you take that chance, you are also opening yourself to
the potential of reward. Risking means gambling, when you move from one
place or situation or idea to another, that good things will happen, not
bad. Risking means venturing out from the safe harbor to the open seas.
In fact, the original meaning of risk from the Greek is: to sail around
But even if you risk and fail, you have gained something from the trying
that avoidance of risk can never provide.
'Avoid allergens,' Mrs Fretwell would chant. She might as well have
said avoid life (but most astmatics will do that anyway, without having
to be told).
In fact, safety has no place anywhere. Everything that's fun in life
is dangerous. Horse races, for instance, are very dangerous. But attempt
to design a safe horse and the result is a cow (an appalling animal to
watch at the trotters.) And everything that isn't fun is dangerous too.
It is impossible to be alive and safe.
I mean, so what if some fifty-eight-year-old butt-head gets a load on
and starts playing Death Race 2000 in the rush-hour traffic jam? What kind
of chance is he taking? He's just waiting around to see what kind of cancer
he gets anyway. But if young, talented you, with all of life's possibilities
at your fingertips, you and the future Cheryl Tiegs there, so fresh, so
beautiful - if the two of you stake your handsome heads on a single roll
of the dice in life's game of stop-the-semi - now that's taking chances!
Which is why old people rarely risk their lives. It's not because they're
chicken - they just have too much dignity to play for small stakes.
... a risk which has not materialized within the individual's own experience
is unlikely to be regarded seriously.
... a large number of people exposed to a small risk may generate many
more cases than a small number exposed to a high risk.
... the burden of ill health comes more from the many who are exposed
to a low inconspicuous risk than from the few who face an obvious problem.
This sets a limit to the effectiveness of an individual (high-risk) approach
The danger, when not too dangerous, fascinate.
One man's health risk is another man's pleasure.
I've seen too many fuckin' people who are dead before they're alive.
They don't want to take a chance. They are B and C personalities, they're
happy enough to work in a Laundromat. God bless 'em. But I gotta tell you,
there are a lot more rewards out there.
... if you take a risk, two things will happen. People will laugh at
you. Or you'll be way ahead of everybody else. And if that's what you're
in it for, then you gotta take that risk.
Safe in life, safe in death, the merchant liked to feel.
When a woman marries again it is because she detested her first husband.
When a man marries again it is because he adored his first wife. Women
try their luck; men risk theirs.
Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.
Copyright © by Eberhard Wenzel, 1997-2001