The Big Risk Test aimed to be the biggest study of risk ever undertaken. Professor David Spiegelhalter and Dr Mike Aitken explain what the test was about and what they hoped it would reveal.
Taking a chance on a financial investment is a fundamentally different activity to parachuting out of an aeroplane, but they are still both ‘risky’.
Risk is a very complex subject. We all take risks every day and in virtually every area of our lives. If you can’t predict with absolute certainty what will happen when you make a choice, you are taking a risk.
Whether it’s deciding not to carry an umbrella on a cloudy day, or choosing what type of treatment to have for a potentially life-threatening illness, we all make countless and often complex decisions about risk all the time. Sometimes these decisions can have a major impact on the path our lives take.
Today, researchers all over the world are investigating the many aspects of risk and risk-taking behaviour. Similarly, with the Big Risk Test we wanted to try and answer some challenging questions about how people manage risk, and understand why people have such different opinions and feelings about the risks they choose to take.
We wanted to know how you felt about a variety of hazards, including things that affected you individually, as well as bigger issues, such as climate change, that affect the whole of society. We were not looking for right or wrong answers, rather we were interested in people’s emotional response to risk.
Do you know how risky scuba diving is compared to riding a motorbike? Or how likely it is that your flight will be delayed, or you will fail your driving test? In contrast to your feelings about risk, these questions do have right and wrong answers. We wanted to know what influences our ability to assess the scale of risks accurately.
Risks can be communicated in a wide variety of ways, for example, by using words, numbers and pictures. We wanted to know which methods people find easiest to understand, and which ones help them to remember information most effectively. The better the method of communication, the more informed our decisions will be, and this is particularly important when it comes to issues like health.
Does mathematical ability affect the decisions we make?
When confronted with a choice between a fairly safe option and a slightly riskier one, which do you take? Do you believe in luck and does it influence your attitude to risk-taking? In the Big Risk Test, we looked at when you took more chances, when you played it safe, and what factors affected your decisions.
Risks are often presented in terms of mathematical concepts, such as percentages and probabilities. We hoped to find out how confidence with numbers might influence our ability to calculate risk.
There are many different kinds of risk. Taking a chance on a financial investment is a fundamentally different activity to parachuting out of an aeroplane, but they are still both ‘risky’. But just because you thrive on one type of risk, doesn’t mean you thrive on all types. We wanted to find out in which areas of your life you were most comfortable taking risks, and whether there is a relationship between the type of person someone is and the sort of risks they are prepared to take.
We hoped that by getting as many people to take part in the Big Risk Test as possible we could begin to unlock the answers to some really important questions, and ultimately help people make better decisions about some of the issues that affect their chances in life.
Professor David Spiegelhalter is the University of Cambridge Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk and a senior scientist at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit. Dr Mike Aitken is a lecturer in the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge.