February 11, 2016

Low probability catastrophic events

Dear kids,

You don’t wear your seatbelt because you’re a good driver and have never been in an accident. You don’t save your money because you’ve never been laid off and if you were you could easily find another job. You don’t wear a bike helmet because you’re careful and have never wiped out.

Well, I’m here to tell you that some bad things only have to happen once in your life to ruin you. Once car accident, one major change to your employment prospects, one tap by a passing car can devastate your life. Sure maybe the odds are in your favour, but by thinking these things could never happen to you you’re gambling with your life.

Think about it another way. If you were to get into an accident without wearing a seatbelt, become a paraplegic and later found out you would have been fine if you had only worn your seatbelt, would you have any regrets?

People take low-probability but catastrophic risks because they focus on the odds and not the potential outcome and they believe they have more control over their lives than possible. Even the most skilled bicyclists are nicked from behind by a distracted driver.

People also take low-probability but catastrophic risks because the warnings are mostly third-hand. People don’t often have friends or family who have been through such events and can serve as a warning. This is partly because these events are rare, but also because when they do occur often the victim is no longer alive (or mentally capable) to spread the warning.

So before you take risks, don’t think about the likelihood of something happening. Think about what life would be like if it did happen.

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