Should we ever take risks just to build resilience?

This question was put ot me by an interesting website – Science and Religion Today . Not my usual stomping ground but, having reassured myself that they were defenders of Darwin, I decided they deserved an answer. Here it is:

The pursuit of resilience involves risk management. The figure below describes the essence of this process. It describes the “risk thermostat” that every one of us employs in the pursuit of resilience.

Propensity in this diagram represents the setting of the thermostat. Propensity leads to risk-taking behavior that leads, by definition, to accidents; to take a risk is to do something that carries with it a probability of an adverse outcome. Through surviving accidents and learning from them or seeing them on TV or being warned by our mothers, we acquire our perception of safety and danger. The model postulates that when propensity and perception get out of balance, we behave in a way that seeks to restore the balance. Why do we take risks? There are rewards, and the model proposes that the magnitude of the reward influences propensity.

Resilience requires command over resources. Flood defenses and earthquake-resistant buildings, accident and emergency services, and post-disaster continuity planning are all luxuries that the poor cannot afford. The single-minded pursuit of accident avoidance at all costs severely constrains the pursuit of the rewards of risk, the creation of the resources that ultimately make resilience affordable. Achieving resilience is a balancing act. Too little caution can lead to disaster; too much can kill the enterprise. In one company I know, the overly enthusiastic health and safety team is referred to as “the sales prevention department.”

“No risk, no reward” may be the mantra of stock market hucksters, but it happens to be true. The elusive trick in an uncertain world lies in getting the balance right.

So, my answer to the question is yes! Resilience is a reward worth taking risks for.

John Adams is an emeritus professor of geography at University College London and the author of the blog Risk in a Hypermobile World.

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  1. michael parkes says:

    I agree with your premise that we take risks to reward ourselves, which is acceptable as long as it does not hurt others. Unfortunately the ethical egoist position flies out the window when personal judgement is impaired by ill considered internal choices ( e.g. one more beer for the road). It would seem that governments are therefore forced into the business of compensating for poor internal choices by a minority. As a result they overreact as legislative instruments are such blunt instruments.

    I enjoyed your book.

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