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The Concept of Risk:
Perceptions of the Likelihood of Loss (R-) or gain (R+)
in Outdoor & Adventure Education & Recreation

James Neill
Last updated:
16 Dec 2003

The concept of risk: Perceptions of the likelihood of loss (R-) or gain (R+)

...and then the day came when
the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful
than the risk it took to blossom.
- Anais Nin
(More Risk quotes, Anais Nin quotes)

The concept of "risk" usually refers to the probability of loss of a valued resource.  For example, if I invest my money, what is risk (likelihood) that I will lose my money?  If I go rockclimbing, what is the risk that I will lose my life or suffer pain?  We can refer to this "risk of loss" as R-.

But "risk" is also about gain (R+).  Why do you gamble on the possibilities of life?  In order to "gain" possible positive outcomes.  Why do you speed on the road, given the increase in the likelihood of crashing (R-)?  Because you seek R+ possibilities, or positive aspects of risk, such as the thrill of speed or satisfaction of getting somewhere on time.  Note: I initially learned about this useful R- and R+ conceptualization from an article by Rick Curtis, called "Building a Risk Management Machine: The SafeCon System".

R- and R- (Yin & Yang)R- and R+ are intertwined, in a holistic fashion.  One cannot have R- without R+, and vice-versa.  And as one changes, the other changes.  However, there is chaotic nature to R- and R+, so it can seem at times that the balance is out of kilter.

This sign has sharp edgesWestern society seems to have become increasingly obsessed with R-, the risk of loss, during the 20th century, particularly the last 10 to 20 years.  The increasingly litigious nature of Western culture is a clear example, with many landmark cases shaping a new societal understanding of risk.  For example, in a recent case in an Australia court (New South Wales) a man successfully sued a local council for negligence because he went to a natural beach, dived in and broke his neck.  The court agreed that the council should have provided signage warning him of this danger. 

Such cases are now tracked and, with a somewhat grim sense of humor, the most outrageous are given a "Stella Award".  The Stella Awards were inspired by Stella Liebeck. In 1992, Stella, then 79, spilled a cup of McDonald's coffee onto her lap, burning herself. A New Mexico jury awarded her $2.9 million in damages, but that's not the whole story.  Stella has become an American icon. Rightly or wrongly, she is a symbol of the American Tort system gone wrong, and most have heard of her case -- and have an opinion on it. The Stella Awards reports real case stories to dramatically illustrate the extent to which litigation is rising to epidemic proportations.  Fortunately, there is also a backlash.  For example, recent law changes in New South Wales have been introduced to make litigations due to  personal injury more difficult -- as of November, 2003, the changes haven't, however, been tested in court.

Much risk of loss is seemingly unavoidable or inherent in living -- e.g., a lightening strike.  Other risks -- e.g., catching a disease, may or may not seem avoidable, depending on your locus of control, which is the extent to which you attribute what happens in your life to your own actions or other forces, e.g., God, Fate, Others. (Go to a tutorial about Locus of Control).

The risks of not taking risksLess talked about are the risks associated with not taking risks.  For example, many people looking back on their lives wish they'd taken more rather than less risks, or at least wish they'd been more wise in their selection of risks.  Interestingly, people who survive a major encounter with the threat of death, often report increases in their quality of life, often including taking more risks to focus on what they genuinely feel is important in their lives.

Explore classic "If I Had My Life Over" passages - Erma Bombeck on learning she had cancer, Nadine Stair (1953).

Willi Unsoeld, a famous American mountaineer and Outward Bound pioneer, was once asked by a fearful mother if he could guarantee her son's safety on an outdoor program.  No, he told her, he could only guarantee exposure to risk.  But, he added, that by sheltering her son from risk, the mother would be guaranteeing the death of her son's soul.

During the 20th century, industrialized society bred a culture of of increasing fear.  For example, during the cold war and the build-up of nuclear arsenal, a whole generation was profoundly affected by the fear of nuclear annihiliation.  Then since the World Trade Tower destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, a new wave of fear of terrorist attacks spread through the Western world.

But if we get scared off and succumb to anxiety, seeking retreat into the fantasy of safety, we forgo potential growth opportunities.

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure.  It is a powerful obstacle to growth.  It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation.  There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling.  If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure -- all your life.
- John W. Gardner (1912-2002)

So, learning about the role that risk plays and can play in one's own life can be valuable.

It is difficult and only somewhat useful to understand risk intellectually or mathematically.  The most profound knowledge about risk is personal understanding of how to use it to good effect in one's life.

Adventure Recreation is BoomingPsychological research has found that some people are inherently more risk-taking than others (e.g., those attracted to extreme sports).  Unfortunately, in modern Western society, there is a currently a lack of readily available, healthy risk taking models and opportunities through which people can practice risk-taking.  But the urge remains built into our species.  As a result, society is struggling with how to respond to the escalation of risk-taking behaviors which are seen by dominant culture as undesirable - e.g., delinquent behaviors, drug-taking, sexual risks, etc.

The human need to have powerful encounters with risk is is an under-acknowledged cause, for example, of drug-taking and delinquent behaviors.  Rather than trying to stomp out such behaviors, it would be far more beneficial to expand availability of healthy risk-taking behaviors include sport, competitions, adventure activities, experiential game and activities, creativity exercises, and so on.

Where Has the Adventure Gone?

  • If you wish to further explore socio-psychological understandings of Risk and its relation to adventure and the outdoors, go to a powerpoint lecture called "Where Has the Adventure Gone?  Bringing Risk Back into the Outdoors" (Neill, 2003).
  • If you want to delve further, there was an interesting listserv discussion on OUTRES (outdoor education research) on "Do we need more or less risk?" September and October,  2003.  Note that the subject title of the thread changed several times, so read the messages chronologically rather than by title.