David Gamble explains that the perception of risk is in the eye of the beholder and varies with the culture from which it is seen.
Risk is a constant. It is always with us, whether crossing the road or deciding which stock to invest in. But the perception of risk and how it should be managed differs between cultures, just as does the perception of time.
Fear of others, of death, of outsiders, are all rooted in culture. Because of their belief systems, some societies are far more comfortable with uncertainty than others who want everything fixed and, if possible, fixed permanently.
The skeleton of the cultural differences over risk shows up in the statistics for local, national and international groups. From these we can see clearly that there are different risks and different degrees of the same risk in each culture. What is more difficult is to put flesh on the statistics and explain exactly why these differences exist.
Risk and Neanderthal man
There is evidence that Neanderthal man was less well adapted to uncertainty than the Homo sapiens who lived at the same time and survived. It was not a question of being stronger or physically better able to withstand the harsh conditions; it was because modern man was a better networker than Neanderthal and so had a wider range of contacts to draw upon when things became difficult.
This can be surmised, but not conclusively proven, from comparison of the hearth site organisation and the evidence of transported items, such as stone axes, which can be traced back to a place of origin. As my brother, who is an archaeologist of the period puts it: “The Neanderthals died out because they did not send Christmas cards”.
It was the difference in Neanderthal's culture which made them less adaptable to the uncertainties, the risks, that they faced.
Life expectancy and risk
Coming to the present, differing cultural risks are most clearlydemonstrated through the statistics on life expectancy. Those living inNorth America and Western Europe have longer life expectancy than thoseliving in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. The mortality risks,especially for infants, are much higher in sub-Saharan Africa.
A report on UNICEF in the Financial Times on 12 July 1999 referred to a new yardstick – “the child risk measure”. This scores risk on a scale of 0-100 taking into account mortality of children under five, security from conflict, primary schooling and incidence of AIDS. The global average score is 30. A sub-Saharan child has a score of 61, rising to over 90 in Angola, Sierra Leone and Somalia. The average score for European children is six.
The West does not always come out at the top, and for many years now the Japanese have had even longer life expectancy rates than North Americans and Europeans. The Japanese diet of fish rather than dairy products is one of the reasons, and another is the excellent pre-natal care in Japan which is carefully followed by a female population, as well educated as their Western contemporaries and more disciplined. This discipline provides the Japanese with great capacity for the risk management of foreseen risks and a very good system to avoid recurrences of the same problem. However, this cultural strength can be a weakness when there is an unforeseen risk. When there is major unforeseen disaster, no one is willing to break ranks and take responsibility for a course of action – no matter how sensible – that has not been agreed. Witness the incompetent attempts to control the Aum Rikkyo sect before it sprayed the Tokyo subway with Sarin gas and the complete breakdown of the Japanese disaster recovery systems for the most critical period after the JAL flight crashed on its way to Osaka in 1985.
Living in a major earthquake zone changes people's perception of risk and what can be done to mitigate it. When the risk is as severe and uncertain as the next Tokyo earthquake or the next destruction of Pompeii, then people become resigned and although they take precautions, it is with the same lack of hope of survival which we used to have at school in the 1960s when drilling for a nuclear attack.
Risk is in the eye of the beholder
The two countries that I know best are England and Japan. From personalexperience here are some differences between them when calculating risks:
• For Japanese dishes such as sukiyaki each diner must dip the cooked beef into raw egg and then eat. The Japanese just do not regard the risk of salmonella as sufficiently serious to stop them eating what they have always eaten.
• There is a fish in Japan, fugu, which can only be served by licensed cooks because its blood is poisonous. Every year, ten or so customers die. Part of the attraction of eating the most dangerous organs is the risk.
• Half the English population did not wear safety belts until they were forced to by law. In Japan, the farther you are from Tokyo the fewer Japanese motorists wear seat belts. In both cases what is being shown is a cultural attitude to authority rather than to risk.
• Japanese parents do not put seat belts on their small children when they ride in the front seat of a car because they feel that children should be indulged.
• The Japanese and the English drive on the same side of the road. Those who can afford them like to drive BMW and Mercedes cars. However, the Japanese prefer to drive right-hand drive foreign cars, which is more risky but is felt to be more stylish. For this they are willing to pay more than for left-hand drive cars. The English could buy cheaper right-hand drive BMWs but they do not. Is this a result of risk appreciation or lack of style?
• Not only are Japanese children taught earthquake drill at school, they also have the responsibility to keep their classrooms tidy. This care extends to their factories.
• Japanese bathe every day, not only do they thus make use of a side benefit of volcanoes which is hot springs, but the humid Japanese climate makes daily bathing in summer essential to keep skin diseases at bay. Good personal hygiene is good risk management.
Old fashioned risk management
• The English do not like tempting providence – of the: “This car has not had a puncture for a very long while” variety.
• Japanese couples always try to get married on an auspicious day; English couples just try to get married on a sunny one.
You may consider that the above observations are merely idiosyncratic and prove little in pure risk management terms, but they do illustrate a key principle for the modern risk manager – the need to network to discover all the components that can affect the assessment and management of risk. Attending and networking at conferences such as the FERMA Forum or AIRMIC's annual conference (5-7 June, 2000, Birmingham International Convention Centre) can, therefore, be seen as prudent act of risk management.
Remember the fate of Neanderthal man!David Gamble is executive director of the UK risk management association, AIRMIC. He has wide business experience gained working at senior management levels in the UK and Japan. AIRMIC tel: +44 (0) 207 480 7610; fax: +44 (0) 207 702 3752; website: www.airmic.co.uk