Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Actual and Percieved Risk

It irks me to no end that certain health insurance companies can stick an exclusionary rider in their individual coverage policies for any rock climbing related injuries, meaning, to that company, rock climbing is un-insurable--but they're still willing to cover car accidents.

For instance, last Tuesday, I was in a car wreck on the way to going rock climbing.

Don't worry, I'm fine and so is everybody involved, minus the poor high school kid who rear-ended us who is now going to have a high car insurance bill.  There was no need to cash in on that expensive individual health plan just yet.


I'm recalling a study I heard about (on NPR probably) citing the "Lake Wobegon Effect", in which everyone thinks he or she is an above-average driver (Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average).  The saying goes that those who drive faster than you are maniacs, and those slower than you are morons.  Interestingly, this effect applies to other, telling things these days: why AIG and friends still paid their execs obscene bonuses (because our people are above average, as exemplified by how much we pay them), the destruction of recently-graduated college student self-importance by the brutally competitive job market.

As far as driving is concerned, our self-delusion might be explained by the fact that human beings are just not wired to comprehend the true experience, including the danger, of riding in a car.  Our bodies might respond with panic to 60, 70, 80, miles per hour, if we were exposed to the rushing wind or could view oncoming objects directly-- but kept safe in our little boxes, on our little strips of asphalt, our body doesn't feel how easy it would be for us to hurtle at high speeds into other objects that might also be going fast.  Our instinct-brain may not even really understand the concept of that much speed, that not being something we had to deal with while we were evolving.

I suppose I am deluded under the Lake Wobegon Effect:  I sure think other people drive recklessly all the time.  Included in reckless drive are the obvious, as well as (studies show!) things like talking on a cell phone, changing cds, texting--all things I've seen even very level headed, cautious, and sensible people do without a second thought.   This might be because even if (some of us) realize, rationally, that danger is nigh, that amygdala lizard brain, that part whose job is to press our guttural emotional buttons--usually at inopportune times--has no sensory input telling it to complain.  Even when sudden brake lights surprise you, there may be some panic but the situation is still removed, unreal, unless an actual accident happens.  You can go back to texting after a few deep intakes of breath, and perhaps even continue to think yourself a great driver.

Rock climbing is the opposite.  I've encountered many people who think it's ridiculously dangerous, and it is, if you're into that solo free climbing stuff.  But barring the crazies, rock climbing is a sport with ample safeguards in place. Far more people die swimming each year.  Okay, far more people go swimming, but a higher percentage of those die than of those who rock climb.  High friction devices will stop rope from sliding through them when your belayer wants to stop you, and all the brightest physics goes into the design and placement of anchors and gear that holds the rope.  More anchors than needed are aways used,  at least, if you climb with me, and most of the people who trained me.   Those ropes are designed and tested to suspend trucks, people are no problem.

Yet when you're clinging to a rock face and you can't figure out where to put your hands and you reach and feel yourself slipping, even though your rational brain remembers setting the solid anchors holding your rope in place, even if you can see the rope and feel it start to hold your weight...still, that amgydala kicks into high gear.  It knows that heights + your body = potential recipe for harm, and you can't explain things like ropes and safety gear to the part of your brain that you share with lizards.

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