View Only

Between the Waves Podcast: Processing Risk

By Taylor Matsko posted 06-29-2021 01:02 PM

Between the Waves Podcast
Processing Risk, Episode 20
*This is a transcript of the "Processing Risk" episode of NASBLA's Podcast, Between the Waves, from June 23, 2021.
Between the Waves
I recently found myself on two different calls in which the discussion was had about sharing the importance of education and safety equipment, due to the high number of accidents, injuries and fatalities. And transversely, not focusing on the increase in numbers to focus on the fact that boating is really safe in comparison to other outdoor activities to draw more people into it.

Here's my dilemma. Texas hit a 30-year high of boating accidents in 2020. So we are harping on the importance of safety, but at the same time, we're trying to recruit new boaters, retain current boaters and reactivate past boaters who may have wandered away from this form of recreation as part of our R3 plan. In part because recreational boating, in large part, is a user-pay user-benefits system.

See the problem? We work to stop the injuries and deaths, while maintaining the fact that boating is safe so more people should do it.

So I had to ask myself – are the numbers important? And is telling them, making a difference? How should we proceed? Encourage the public about the importance of employing safety because of the risk, or just live in the world of encouraging more participation in boating. There certainly must be a middle ground.

For example, boating is roughly as dangerous as attending a dance party. “What,” you say? Based on 2018 National U.S. Coast Guard Boating Participation Data, coupled with National Boating Fatality Data for the same year, roughly one in 100,000 participants died in a boating-related accident. While other data indicates you have the same chance of dying while attending a dance party.

In a world where polyester is king, disco rules. Funky is a way of life, and everybody's wearing their boogie shoes. Motor Booty Affair has been lighting up stages across America with their 70s extravaganza - dazzling audiences with a show that has been dubbed the ultimate disco party band. Motor Booty Affair consists of four funkateers straight from the planet Funktar: Superfly, Spanish Fly, Sir Rumpus Funkberry and Cyclone Link Skywalker Jr.

It's a wonder any of us made it out of the 1970 Motor Booty Band’s dance party at the NASBLA Annual Conference in Bar Harbor, Maine alive. On this episode, we will discuss the availability heuristic and disconnect between feared and the real risks. And also how we should consider the use of statistics and what we present to the public, and the response we may get in return.

This is Between the Waves, an audio series to discuss the topics important to today’s water safety professional. Here’s your host from the great state of Texas, Cody Jones.

In the theme of the 1970s, let's play another iconic sound, and you tell me the emotion it invokes.

[Jaw’s soundtrack intro]

How often have you gone out to a beach and peered out into the water looking for that iconic dorsal fin thinking, I'm not going in. I don't want to be eaten by a shark.

I jest, but the movie Jaws plays a disproportionate fear in many people's minds about the risk of shark attacks, when in reality there is reasonably only four or five deaths a year worldwide from shark attacks.

So what is really going on? That vivid depiction, or sense of experience that people felt from watching Jaws has since caused them to employ the availability heuristic, or in easier terms availability bias, a mental shortcut we use based on a much more powerful and vivid, or immediately available example, stories or experiences to judge the imaginability or the probability of it happening to us, or others, rather than what the data bears out. This is not always a bad thing, as this feeling can in some cases drive a relative response in close proximity to an event occurring, but unless reinforced may not make a long-term change.

Most people don't truly calculate risk based on data because frankly, our brains just aren't wired to do that complex of math. For instance, most people consider risk to be a linear progression. If I don't wear a PFD on one boating trip, it was one time of risk for one trip. And on the second trip the risk increased by one-fold, and so on. But this simple linear increase is just not true. As I have presented previously, you have a compounding interest type formula that must be considered as part of cumulative risk, you will undertake.

A unique example of this I recently heard, was that if you had a sheet of paper that was infinitely long and you fold it in half, it would double in thickness. And then in half again, and so on and so on. So the question is, how many times would you have to fold it to make a tower that reached the moon from Earth? Likely you're thinking millions or billions of folds, would be required due to the linear progression our brains fall trap to. But the truth is only 45 folds would be required to hit that quarter of a million miles away. Because compounding math, or exponential growth, that must be considered.

So if a human cannot or does not consider this type of difficult math when calculating risk, what do they rely on?

In part, they rely on their feelings and things that are available to them, either because they're entertaining or they are relatively fresh and have made them feel something.

Back to the Jaws example, the entertainment industry like movies and TV shows have shaped people's idea of risk, at times, when it wasn't really the case. For instance, sharks should be more scared of us than we are of them, seeing that we kill more than 100,000 of them when they rarely even ever kill us. And yet, a whole generation has feared entering the water.

With that said, it's not often that you see an everyday family getting into a boat accident on TV or movies. So unless you have a personal experience with a loss of a friend or a loved one in a boating experience, or have some experience that may have developed a feeling of risk when boating, it may be that you don't quantify the relative risk when heading to the lake, and may not consider the appropriate strategies to mitigate that risk.

Think of it this way – you get in your car and choose not to place your seatbelt on, you safely arrive at your destination with no issues. Your immediate subconscious thought is no problem. Nothing happened. I'm good. And since you were neither punished, nor rewarded, your brain, based on the relative recent feedback, will likely rely on the availability bias the next time you take a ride and say nothing to worry about here. Last time I didn't wear, and there were no problems. Yet, in fact, you have not considered the cumulative risk and have simply relied on your feelings.

So how should we proceed in our efforts to educate the public about risk while still encouraging new boaters? As we have already said, boating is a relatively safe activity, but it would be much safer if the boating public would employ a simple piece of safety equipment. The PFD.

We must consider when and if numbers alone will speak to the general public. And if it will have a subconscious effect on their decision to use a PFD. It may be worth considering using relatable stories in a way that will employ their availability bias, rather than relying on the relative risk through the numbers, while still inviting them to participate.

People are shaped by stories, by images, and by the consensus from the group around it. We must educate ourselves on the science of risk perception if we are ever to make a difference in our field.

Until next time, stay safe, and watch out for those dance parties.


Listen to this episode of the NASBLA podcast on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.