Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer on risk literacy

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Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer on risk literacy

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Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
May 11, 2023

For Gerd Gigerenzer the pandemic exposed why we need better risk literacy


by Neelima Mahajan
Illustrations by Nigel Buchanan

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer's research has changed how we think about intuition, uncertainty and risk. Here, he explains how Covid-19 exposed a need for better risk literacy and communication.

At some level the pandemic was a big social experiment. It laid bare how human beings think of risk and, when confronted with risk and uncertainty, how they often act in a manner that goes against all rational explanations. Using the pandemic as a backdrop, we spoke with Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist and director emeritus of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Gigerenzer, an expert on uncertainty and risk management, who spoke to us during the Global Peter Drucker Forum, helps us understand why we reacted to the pandemic the way we did and why, as a society, we need to lay more emphasis on risk literacy.

From your perspective, what did the pandemic teach us about how we, as humans, process uncertainty and risk?

I hope the pandemic taught us a lesson. I'm not so sure. First, I hope it taught us to accept uncertainty rather than ­thinking we are living in a world of calcu­lated risk. We have seen in quite a number of people who are skeptical about, say, vaccination, that they still cherish the illusion of certainty. So when the first news came that fully vaccinated people nevertheless got infected or even severely sick, there was an outcry: How can that happen? This is an example where the pandemic confronted us with our own lack of risk literacy.

Gerd Gigerenzer

Gerd Gigerenzer is a psychologist and behavioral scientist whose research has revolutionized our understanding of bounded rationality and heuristics. A specialist in behavioral intuition and risk calculation, he is also the author of Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious and Risk Savvy: How to Make Good ­Decisions. His latest book, How to Stay Smart in a Smart World: Why Human Intelligence Still Beats Algorithms, was published in 2022.

What do you make of the spectrum of reactions to the pandemic – from extreme panic to nonchalance? What would have been a more prudent reaction, at least in the early days?

I've seen quite a number of young people who got highly interested in virology. I was very much impressed how a substantial group went the scientific way and tried to understand what's going on. This is what Marie Curie said: The more we understand, the less we fear. Not everyone went this way. Part of the problem was that most governments were not prepared to communicate with the public in an understandable way, a way that the public accepted and trusted. Many institutions consider risk communication as a soft science – not really important, as opposed to toxicology and virology. If we want to reach the public, we need to have institutions and people who know how to reach out rather than to frighten and alarm the public.

The pandemic overshadowed a host of other risks – going to get a routine heart checkup, for instance, against the risk of getting Covid-19 by making that trip to the hospital. As humans, how should we be grading the risks in our lives and the way we want to react to them?

The first principles of risk literacy that we should teach everyone in society are to get rid of the illusion of certainty. Second, don't focus on one risk: weigh the risks. When they heard about the side effects of severe thrombosis from AstraZeneca, quite a number of people refused to take the vaccination. That was in early spring 2021. I would rather wait and be certain not to get this severe thrombosis. What the people hadn't learned is that by trying to reduce one risk to zero, you typically increase other risks – in this case, by waiting for the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine for months, you might have a larger chance of ending up in an ICU. Today, risk literacy is as important as reading and writing some 150 years ago.

A simple rule for risk evaluation: Big numbers make for spectacular headlines, but may not be transparent. Therefore, always ask if the numbers you're seeing represent relative or absolute risk increases – the absolute figures are more accurate, but are likely less eye-catching.

Many of us had our lives upended by Covid-19. Some were infected, others stayed cooped up at home, monitoring case numbers obsessively, trying to keep abreast of the latest news and vaccine developments – just living in extreme fear. Would you categorize this risk obsession as healthy or unhealthy?

We have seen both things. We have seen people who didn't dare leave their homes and were frightened to death. And we have seen people who didn't care, who thought at least if they were male, that it's a matter of being male to just go on like before and everybody else is a sissy. The majority of people, I think, were quite reasonable in most countries and some countries managed it much better. Portugal and Spain, in particular, were hit early and today have vaccination rates that are over 90%. Other countries where the issue was politicized, as often happens, are split – like in the US. So it's also a mixture between political attitudes, vaccination, a lot of ignorance, fear and bravery that we witness – but that is what humans are about. What we really lack is risk literacy on the side of the people and risk communication on the side of the governments. That needs to be improved. If you don't do it this time, the next time it will hit us again.

We rely on frames of reference to assess risk: our personal experiences, others' experiences, recent history. This time we were confronted with something we had no reference points for – at least in our lifetimes. How can we get comfortable with the idea of dealing with uncertainty for which there's no precedent?

There are some people who actually had larger problems, such as those in Third World countries where there's hunger and other things. But lucky us who live without war. It can be a reminder: Accept that you're mortal, that the world is uncertain, and do your best. And maybe don't think that you will be eternal. Think about how would it be if this would be the last day of your life: Couldn't you do something more useful than what you're going to do today? Covid-19 is a chance for us in many ways to wake up and to accept uncertainty and learn how to deal with it, emotionally and also cognitively.

Don't be a turkey: Is it a risk or an uncertainty?
1. You get fed

Imagine you're a turkey in a pen. If you are fed on the first day there, you may assume there is one certain outcome each day.

2. You don't get fed

If you are not fed 50% of days, you now know there are two possible outcomes each day. There is a risk you will not be fed.

3. It's Thanksgiving

After 100 days in the pen, now you're the food. The risk is no longer whether you will be fed or not. There was a hidden factor: uncertainty.

Covid-19 was a perfect storm: half-baked information, misinformation, conspiracy theories ... In this fog of uncertainty, what are the guideposts we could have looked for?

At best, you can hope you have a medical system and a government that is responsible rather than trying to increase votes or fight the opposition. Also, an educational system that actively deals with that so you can bring Covid-19, as a topic, into schools. It can be in mathematics, about the statistics. It can be in sports: learning about how to keep distance, keep yourself in shape and also have personal development. Learn what questions to ask. Accept that there's no zero risk. Also, [regarding] the psychology of risk: Most people who love conspiracy theories tend to believe them because their peers believe them. Otherwise they think they might be out of their peer group. Realize how much you are dependent on the opinion of others, that you never checked many of your beliefs. Think about whether you want to take your life in your own hands rather than living a comfortable life being remote controlled by others.

An illustration of a white feather with a black stripe.
Avoid free falling: Gerd Gigerenzer on why trusting our intuition doesn’t always work.
"Intuition will help you as long as you have experience. If you have no experience with a certain topic, then you shouldn't trust your feelings."

Gerd Gigerenzer


What is the role of intuition in assessing risk? Is it something that gets in the way or is it something we should rely on?

Intuition is a feeling that is based on years of experience, where you know what to do or what not to do, but you can't explain it. It's important not to confuse intuition with an arbitrary decision or a sixth sense. A doctor who sees a patient regularly thinks something is wrong, but cannot explain what it is – but then intuition leads and diagnostics begin. Intuition is often put in opposition to deliberate thinking and that's a big error: It is the beginning of deliberate thinking. It's an impulse. It goes together. All good experts work by intuition, but not only by intuition. There would be no innovation without intuition. So intuition will help you as long as you have lots of experience. If you have no experience with a certain topic, then you shouldn't trust your feelings about that. Intuition is an important vehicle, but we live in a society where there is mistrust generated against intuition, even by a number of psychologists who show with one experiment after the other intuition is going wrong. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says that the book is, in part, about showing that intuition goes wrong. In that research, there is rarely ever any attempt to understand when intuition works. That's the completely wrong track.

We know from other psychology research, including my own, that – for instance, in sports – an experienced golf player needs to go by intuition. A beginner, not. Experiments show if you have a group of novices and a group of experts, and you instruct them, the beginners will get better, but the experts get worse because they deliberately begin to think about something which is in the unconscious. I've worked with many large corporations and asked top executives to think about the last 10 professional decisions they made or were part of: How many of them were, in the end, a gut decision? Everyone works with data but the data doesn't always tell you what to do. The answer I get is about 50% of all decisions are gut decisions. The same executives would never dare to say this in public. We live in a society where fewer and fewer leaders are willing to take responsibility. And what I typically see is that an intuitive decision is made, but it's not publicized, for fear. Rather someone is told to find the reasons. After a week, the employee found the reasons and then the decision is marketed as a fact-based decision.

About the author
Portrait of Neelima Mahajan
Neelima Mahajan
Neelima Mahajan is Editor-in-Chief of Think:Act magazine. She has been a business journalist for two decades in various publications in India and China, including a stint in the founding team of Forbes magazine in India. In 2010-11 she was a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, where she was also a recipient of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant for an Africa reporting project. Neelima has a keen interest in management thought and has done extensive work in the domain. She has interviewed several world-renowned management thought leaders, Nobel Prize winners and global business leaders. In 2010, Neelima received the Polestar Award for Excellence in IT and Business Journalism, one of the highest awards in journalism in India.
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