How People Think About Risk
I have a confession to make: I hate the game Risk. In my view, it’s a boring, repetitive game of chance which is about ruthlessly crushing one’s opponents. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a crushing defense in Risk, so strategy gets fairly one-dimensional. As war games go, I very much prefer Diplomacy (but be prepared to have your friends talk about your betrayal decades later) or – less tension-prone – Vinci or its fantasy variant Small World.
But whether I like the game or not – is Risk adequately named?
The term “risk” is interesting. Throw it out in a conversation, and everybody believes they have an idea of what you are talking about. But dig a bit deeper, and things become less clear.
Every discipline has its own definition of risk, or even several, something we will explore in separate posts. Let’s examine how a layperson sees risk first.
Open any dictionary, and you will find definitions of risk like “the possibility of something bad happening”. That implies chance (it might not happen), and a negative effect if it does.
Even so, general usage of the term varies. Risk can be the outcome, or risk can be the action itself. Most often, risk is not seen as stand-alone, but in conjunction with a potential positive outcome – “risk and reward”, “no risk, no fun”. The negative of the risk is more or less balanced by the reward.
Then there is the usage that more or less equates risk with probability, often with an ironic undertone, as in “my risk of finding a date for tonight was close to zero”. In “there is a x% risk of contracting the COVID-19”, the meaning is purely one of probability, but with a negative outcome. Similar is the word “risky” – it is only applied in high(ish) probability situations or actions.
That’s the word itself – what about people’s attitudes toward risk?
There is a broad spectrum here, from extreme risk aversity to total risk seeking. A fascinating subject for psychologists, economists and others who research human behavior, and something we will also be exploring in more depth, both in blogs and in the interviews we conduct. Keeping it simple for now, we can say that risk attitude is tightly linked to the risk and reward concept – the higher you value the reward, and the less you fear loss, the higher your risk affinity will be.
Individuals don’t just differ by lower or higher tolerance for risk, but also on whether they are aware that an action poses a risk at all. Personal example: I keep bees. Objectively, that is a risk, but I don’t regard it as such. I don’t go so far as to fully open my hive without a suit, which some beekeepers do, but that’s because I know my girls can get a bit testy. Otherwise I am quite happy to have little stingy insects flying around our garden and doing stuff close by.
Culture influences risk attitude, as does ideology. One of the plans for this site is to include a test for our readers’ risk affinity, looking at different angles (financial, personal, hobbies, etc.). Stay tuned.
So coming back to the original question: is Risk adequately named? Kinda – “bad” stuff can happen (you can lose armies/countries/the game), success hinges on the roll of the dice (probability), and there is the reward of winning. If you play correctly, it is quite low risk, though…
 The Western European languages are fairly consistent in the definition of the word, whether risque in French, rischio in Italian or Risiko in German. For the real geeks: etymologically, it seems to derive from the Colloquial Latin term “resecum”, which literally meant cliff and figuratively “the danger for shipped goods”. As far as I can tell it seems to be the same in Japanese. Beyond that, unfortunately, none of us can read any other languages.
 For some people, the “rush” of taking the risk itself is already the reward, so that taking more and more risk becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.
 That's the image above. For those interested: They have a strong strain of the European dark bee, Apis mellifera mellifera nigra. Hardy bunch, but can get defensive.