In his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond looks at how several societies that have avoided technological advancements over long periods of recent time can teach us something. He calls them traditional societies. He indicates that you can look at these traditional societies as separate experiments of how a society develops and maybe by picking and choosing, you can find ways to enhance today’s first world societies. Dealing with risk and making decisions are part of that.
Tribesmen in New Guinea will not build a campsite in the fall radius of a dead tree. Diamond although an intrepid and experienced adventurer did not have this on his list, when the tribesmen let him know. On contemplation he realized that it probably makes sense. The risk may be low, but over a lifetime of campsites, the denominator is big. (I note that in my city planning career, I insisted upon cellphone towers being more than their height away from off site homes. According to all involved in building the towers, they can never fall down.) Diamond indicates that in WEIRD societies, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, we should be afraid of cars and ice on the sidewalk, but that we are more afraid of genetically modified food and nuclear power plants.
Another of Diamond’s examples is the practice in New Guinea of planting tiny plots for food production spread out over miles. A single person might have five to eleven garden plots. Western scientists upon first encountering this were not flattering. Diamond explains that this geographical diversification does not maximize production, but it assures some production. In Kansas where a few miles might provide little diversification, this might not be worthwhile. In New Guinea, in the absence of trade and means of food storage, it can make sense. Diamond points out that such diversification is a lesson to be learned by Wall Street investment bankers. Apparently, New Guineans study Modern Portfolio Theory.
Diamond notes that all human societies face dangers, although different types of dangers lie in store for peoples at different localities or with different life styles. Diamond worries about cars and step ladders, while his New Guinea lowland friends worry about crocodiles and cyclones and enemies, and the !Kung about lions and droughts. Each society has adopted measures for mitigating the particular hazards that it recognizes. Diamond suggest that we citizens of WEIRD societies don’t always think as clearly as we should about the dangers that we face. He says: “Our obsession with the dangers of DNA technology and spray cans would better be focused on the homely hazards of cigarettes and cycling without helmets.” He wonders if we WEIRD moderns are especially prone to misestimate risks because we get most of our information second hand from television and other mass media that emphasize sensational but rare accidents and mass deaths? Diamond asks: “Do traditional peoples estimate risks more accurately because they learn only from the first hand experiences of themselves, their relatives and their neighbors?
It is interesting that Diamond tackles risk perception. I am not certain that traditional societies add anything special to the discussion. He might just as well have examined how Americans in poor economic circumstances look at risk. They would have the same sorts of things to add. Diamond largely is making a point most of us are already aware of. You can learn something useful from anyone. You need to open your mind to the idea, and you may have to do much filtering, but it is there. Below I provide commentary from the decision making about risk literature.
In “Current Theories of Risk and Rational Decision Making” Reyna and Rivers indicate that our risk taking behavior changes as humans individually develop, notably that we are greater risk takers in adolescence. Although risk takers might regret negative outcomes, they do not necessarily recant their perception of risk and benefits which provide the basis for their decisions. According to traditional economic theory, such decisions can be viewed as rational since adolescents are pursing their goals in accordance with their beliefs and values. However, according to fuzzy trace theory, this kind of intentional calculated risk taking is supplanted in mature adults by a simpler meaning based approach that involves getting the core “gist” of important decisions, which allows adults to avoid unhealthy risks. It might be possible to look at Diamond’s traditional societies as being on different branches of human evolutionary development. Maybe one society is more adolescent or adult or elderly. For those New Guinea tribesmen, a campsite next to a dead tree has a gist of “no”. It requires no analysis. Diamond did not have the same training on that danger because his environment was so much different.
Diamond to some extent ignores that we are just the same as traditional societies in that much of our risk taking or avoiding behavior is based on feelings. Kahneman includes some of these in prospect theory. We tend to want to keep what we have more than we want to get more of what we have–loss aversion.
Slovic et. al. in: “Risk As Analysis and Risk As Feelings” point out that whereas risk and benefit tend to be positively correlated in the world, they tend to be negatively correlated in people’s minds and judgments. The affect heuristic asserts that if people like an activity or technology, they are moved toward judging the risks as low and the benefits as high; if they dislike it, they tend to judge the opposite. Similarly, if the benefits are seen as high, say for nuclear power, it would lead to a more positive affect, which would, in turn, decrease perceived risk. Familiar risks like cars and cigarettes usually have alternative lives as perceived benefits so they are less scary than DNA manipulation where the benefits are not so obvious. Cultural Cognition might also help inform Diamond.
Intuition even as impacted by affect, has something to contribute to risk assessment. Such qualities as dread, equity, controllability, etc. that may underlie people’s concerns about risk as well as degrees of ignorance and scientific uncertainty need to be included. I think Diamond might underestimate the importance of some of these qualities.
Diamond, J.(2012), The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies. New York: Viking.
Reyna, V., Rivers, S. (2008). “Current Theories of Risk and Rational Decision Making.” Dev. Rev. 2008 March; 28(1):1-11.
Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E. & MacGregor, D. (2002). “Risk As Analysis and Risk As Feelings.” paper presented at the Society for Risk Analysis, New Orleans, LA, December 10, 2002.