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Inside risks

The Psychology of Risks

Personal risk taking is a major public-health problem in our society. It includes criminal behavior, drug addiction, compulsive gambling, accident-prone behavior, suicide attempts, and disease-promoting activities. The costs in human life, suffering, financial burden, and lost work are enormous. Some of the insights from the psychology of personal risks seem applicable to computer-related risks, and are considered here. This column is thus an orthogonal view of the past CACM "Inside Risks" columns—which have focused primarily on technological problems.

The Greeks had a word for self-defeating risk taking—Akrasia, which referred to incontinent behaviors that an individual performs against his or her own best interests. Clearly, there are some risks that are well considered with personal and social values. The issue that philosophers and psychologists have puzzled over has been why a person would persist in taking harmful, often impulsive risks. This question is seriously compounded when generalized to include people who are using computer systems.

Personal risk-taking behavior can arise from biological, psychological, and social causes. Computer-related risks also involve psychological and social causes—as well as economical, political, institutional, and educational causes. To understand such behavior, it must be analyzed in terms of how individuals, institutions, and the social environment perceive it and what other less-maladaptive options are available. What seems critical in assessing any such behavior is whether any control can be exerted over it, and who or what people and institutions might be aware of its consequences and able to act appropriately. Here are just a few manifestations that result from increased dependence on information technology.

Loss of a sense of community. Easy availability of excerpts from music, books, news, and other media online may lead to fewer incentives for in-person gatherings, an impersonal lack of face-to-face contact, a lessening of thoughtful feedback, and a loss of the joy of browsing among tangible entities—with many social consequences. It may also tend to reduce the general level of our intellects.

Acceleration. Instantaneous access and short-latency turnaround times as in email and instant messaging might seem to allow more time for rumination. However, the expectation of equally instantaneous responses seems to diminish the creative process and escalate the perceived needs for responses. It also seems to lead to less interest in clarity, proper grammar, and correct spelling.

Temptation. Believing that one is unobserved, anonymous, or not accountable may lead to all sorts of risks—such as clicking on untrustworthy URLs, opening up potentially dangerous attachments, and being susceptible to phishing attacks, scams, malware, and blackmail—especially when communicating with unknown people or systems. This can lead to maladaptive consequences through bad judgment and inability to recognize consequences.

Dissociation. Irrational risk behavior may arise due to problems of a modular-cognitive separation. Such behaviors are not unconsciously motivated, yet individuals and institutions are unable to connect the expression of a particular behavioral pattern with its detrimental effects. The extent to which foreseeable computer-related risks are ignored by system developers, operators, and users is quite remarkable from a psychological point of view.

Society often mythologizes artists, explorers, and scientists who take self-destructive risks as heroes who have enriched society. Often people (particularly the young) get a complicated and mixed message concerning the social value of personal risk taking. With respect to computer-related risks, modern society tends to mythologize the infallibility of computer technology and the people who develop it, or alternatively, to shoot the messenger when things go wrong rather than remediating the underlying problems.

The big difference seems to be this: In their personal lives, people tend to consciously and deliberately take risks—though often unaware of possibly serious consequences. When dealing with computer technology, people tend to take risks unconsciously and in some cases unwillingly. (On the other hand, readers of this column space are likely to be much more wary.)

In dealing with personal and computer-related risks, vigorous, compelling, and cognitively clear educational programs are essential for modulating unhealthy behavior and endorsing new attempts to deal with changing environments.

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Leonard S. Zegans ( is a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School.

©2008 ACM  0001-0782/08/0100  $5.00

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