The Psychology of Risks
Personal risk taking is a major public-health
problem in our society. It includes criminal
behavior, drug addiction, compulsive gambling, accident-prone behavior, suicide
attempts, and disease-promoting activities. The costs
in human life, suffering, financial burden, and lost
work are enormous. Some of the insights from the
psychology of personal risks seem applicable to computer-related risks, and are considered here. This
column is thus an orthogonal view of the past
CACM “Inside Risks” columns—which have
focused primarily on technological problems.
The Greeks had a word for self-defeating risk taking—Akrasia, which referred to incontinent behaviors that an individual performs against his or her
own best interests. Clearly, there are some risks that
are well considered with personal and social values.
The issue that philosophers and psychologists have
puzzled over has been why a person would persist in
taking harmful, often impulsive risks. This question
is seriously compounded when generalized to include
people who are using computer systems.
Personal risk-taking behavior can arise from biological, psychological, and social causes. Computer-related risks also involve psychological and social
causes—as well as economical, political, institutional,
and educational causes. To understand such behavior,
it must be analyzed in terms of how individuals,
institutions, and the social environment perceive it
and what other less-maladaptive options are available.
What seems critical in assessing any such behavior is
whether any control can be exerted over it, and who
or what people and institutions might be aware of its
consequences and able to act appropriately. Here are
just a few manifestations that result from increased
dependence on information technology.
Loss of a sense of community. Easy availability of
excerpts from music, books, news, and other media
online may lead to fewer incentives for in-person
gatherings, an impersonal lack of face-to-face contact,
a lessening of thoughtful feedback, and a loss of the
joy of browsing among tangible entities—with many
social consequences. It may also tend to reduce the
general level of our intellects.
Acceleration. Instantaneous access and short-latency
turnaround times as in email and instant messaging
might seem to allow more time for rumination. How-
January 2008/Vol. 51, No. 1 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
ever, the expectation of equally instantaneous
responses seems to diminish the creative process and
escalate the perceived needs for responses. It also
seems to lead to less interest in clarity, proper grammar, and correct spelling.
Temptation. Believing that one is unobserved,
anonymous, or not accountable may lead to all sorts
of risks—such as clicking on untrustworthy URLs,
opening up potentially dangerous attachments, and
being susceptible to phishing attacks, scams, mal-ware, and blackmail—especially when communicating with unknown people or systems. This can lead
to maladaptive consequences through bad judgment
and inability to recognize consequences.
Dissociation. Irrational risk behavior may arise due
to problems of a modular-cognitive separation. Such
behaviors are not unconsciously motivated, yet individuals and institutions are unable to connect the
expression of a particular behavioral pattern with its
detrimental effects. The extent to which foreseeable
computer-related risks are ignored by system developers, operators, and users is quite remarkable from a
psychological point of view.
Society often mythologizes artists, explorers, and
scientists who take self-destructive risks as heroes
who have enriched society. Often people (particularly
the young) get a complicated and mixed message
concerning the social value of personal risk taking.
With respect to computer-related risks, modern society tends to mythologize the infallibility of computer
technology and the people who develop it, or alternatively, to shoot the messenger when things go wrong
rather than remediating the underlying problems.
The big difference seems to be this: In their personal lives, people tend to consciously and deliberately
take risks—though often unaware of possibly serious
consequences. When dealing with computer technology, people tend to take risks unconsciously and in
some cases unwillingly. (On the other hand, readers of
this column space are likely to be much more wary.)
In dealing with personal and computer-related
risks, vigorous, compelling, and cognitively clear educational programs are essential for modulating
unhealthy behavior and endorsing new attempts to
deal with changing environments. c
LEONARD S. ZEGANS ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a psychiatrist and
professor at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School.