We take a deep dive into the psychology of risk and the influence it has on our planning and response mechanisms. In this post (and this podcast episode) we interview Dr Gavriel Schneider, an expert on integrated risk management and safety and security.
How do high levels of comfort and safety affect our attitude toward risk and how does this impact our level of preparedness and ability to respond to risky situations?
Dr Schneider has more than 21 years of experience operating and teaching within the security sector and was the first recipient of a Doctor of Criminology Degree with a specialisation in security management. He also has a Master of Technology Degree in Security Risk Management.
He’s currently the CEO of Risk2Solution, a group of companies providing services in the risk management space, and the author of two books, Can I See Your Hands – A Guide To Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience and Security and Beyond the Bodyguard: Proven Tactics and Dynamic Strategies for Protective Practices Success.
The Psychology of Risk Explained
In Dr Schneider’s words,
“The psychology of risk looks at the way we make decisions in our own minds, how we make decisions around others, and then how decisions are made at a group level.”
He explains that one of the biggest problems risk management professionals find is that clients or prospective clients tend to assess risk based on their own history or their perception of a situation. This in turn gives them a distorted view of reality.
Most of these people have either: a) had little exposure to real risk and thus don’t have the skills required to be attuned to risk or to manage it, or b) they have had exposure to risk but have not had any specific problems so assume that the risk is actually low. The opposite is actually the case as the more exposure they have to risk, the higher the likelihood is that something might go wrong. He sums up this position by saying,
“People confuse luck with risk management and there’s a very different perspective from a business traveller who might arrive at an airport, go to a hotel, go to an office, repeat that cycle for two days and then go back to the airport to somebody who’s actually going to be out and about with no support behind them.”
He gives the example of a business executive who had travelled to Nigeria four or five times without incident. When a project came up that required a larger delegation to travel there, most of whom had never been to the country, he was advised to invest in some security. His response was, “No, I’ve been there five times and nothing’s ever gone wrong and you guys are just being paranoid.”
He even cites examples of clients who try to lose their protection team just to prove that they can. At the other end of the spectrum, Schneider finds clients who do have a reasonable perception of their risk, but then change that perception once they realise how much it will cost to manage it.
“The conversation might start with ‘Money’s no object, I just need to be protected.’ When you tell them what it will actually cost all of a sudden they try to bargain you down and go, ‘Can I get away with one or two guys instead of the four guys you want to send?’”
It Starts With The Individual
Schneider says that corporate travel and security policies are only as effective as the people responsible for complying with them.
“If you can’t even look at how you make decisions yourself, then it doesn’t really matter how effective your corporate policies are or how effective response services are. It does start with the individual.”
He refers to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a five-step model where the first two layers are concerned with basic issues of security and safety and the remaining levels relate to psychological and self-actualisation issues.
“One of the problems we’ve got when we take first-world travellers is that many of them have grown up in a world where they’ve never had to worry about safety and security. They’ve always been safe, they’ve always had food to eat, they’ve never had anything go wrong. All they’ve been worried about is, “Do I have a great job?” “Have I found love?” “Does my life have meaning?”
The problem is, if people have never thought about safety and security, and they expect to be able to manage or deal with a situation that they’re not equipped to, it comes down to luck. And the luck then comes back to an instinctive response, where they might freeze, they might panic, they might fight, they might flight and there’s no ability to control which option they take if something went wrong, which is really risky when you start looking at it.”
Dr Schneider says we need to learn how to make decisions both from a strategic angle and also from a tactical angle. This also includes the occasional need for an instinctive decision to be made and this is where typical first-world travellers are lacking in skill.
A well-trained security detail will however have these skills well developed. Even where it’s not practical for a security detail to travel with you, travellers can reduce their risk dramatically by getting a pre-deployment brief or pre-deployment training from a suitably qualified provider.
Meanwhile, at the group decision-making level, Dr Schneider says half the battle is often in getting different departments in an organisation to coordinate with each other.
“We’ll use the term silo busters. Within organisations, there’s often a safety department, a security department if they’re lucky, there’s a risk department sitting somewhere, there’s a governance and a corporate oversight structure very often. In other organisations, they’ve even got travel departments. None of these people talk to each other. For us, the real risks actually sit in the gaps between those silos.”
The risks he refers to are individuals who often end up making a choice based on the wrong criteria or their own personal experience which doesn’t reflect the reality of a situation.
“If you think of the way your own headworks, we compartmentalise things so that it’s easier for us to make decisions. Most decisions are made on cognitive biases or heuristics, and they’re not actually made on facts.
We tend to relate to what we know instead of trying to figure out new stuff and interpret it. As a result, you get somebody who goes, ‘I went to Bali and nothing happened to me, therefore If I go to [insert name of country] I will be fine.’
Or, ‘Everybody says South Africa was so dangerous. When I went there, nothing happened to me so therefore everywhere else in the world is probably safe.’”
He goes on to say that this attitude is reflected in the corporate environment with a sense of apathy where the psychology of risk isn’t taken as seriously as it should be.
“One of the challenges I think we’ve seen is that activities like risk management for organisations have become tick the box, as opposed to really adding value.”
The Changing Context of Threat
Dr Schneider points out that most people tune out of the changing reality of the threat, seeing it as something that happens to someone else. Despite several horrific events causing loss of life and 15 ‘near miss’ terrorist incidents in Australia between 2014 and 2016, most Australians still distance themselves from risk.
“The threat context, in general, has changed for the average citizen in Australia, yet most of them haven’t realised this. ‘If I haven’t seen this before, I don’t believe it’ll happen to me.’
Even if you have seen it, if you look at what happened in Melbourne [pedestrians being run down] or you look at what happened in the Lindt Café, or you look at the terrorist incidents that are happening pretty regularly now, the average citizen turns around and is still in a state of denial.”
Situational Awareness and the Psychology of Risk
At the other extreme, he cites examples of those who are so regularly exposed to the risk that they let their guard down to the extent that it puts them at even higher risk. They lose what industry insiders call ‘situational awareness’ which Schneider describes as “being aware of the right things”.
He recalls an incident where he picked up an ex-military friend at an airport in South Africa and briefed him about keeping the car windows up and doors locked to reduce the risk of robbery.
“As we were driving out of the airport he was looking around and everyone else in at least 50% of the other vehicles had their windows open and people on cell phones or distracted. He said, ‘You know you’ve just given me the briefing. Why are these people behaving in a way that’s contrary to the threats you’ve identified?’
This comes back to that level of denial and apathy. The biggest challenge we’ve got is being situationally aware takes work and it takes effort.”
Dr Schneider knows the real dangers only too well. He received a phone call one night in South African telling him that his mother and stepfather had been in an attempted robbery and his stepfather had been shot in the head. He said this moment was pivotal in his decision to write his second book, Can I See Your Hands – A Guide To Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience, and Security.
“For me, it was one of those moments in my life where I thought, ‘It actually doesn’t matter how good people like us [security experts] get because we’re not here when our loved ones need us.’
It’s been a little bit of a lifelong pursuit for me to try and translate the knowledge that security professionals have to a format the everyday person would read it, so the book is aimed at the everyday person.
This is knowledge every person should have. This should be taught in school. Everybody should have these fundamental skills. The fact that we don’t is a testament to the level of denial we live in.”
He stresses the importance of not overdoing our level of preparedness and points out that simply being more prepared than most is often enough to keep you out of trouble.
“Being paranoid is worse than not being vigilant at all because you work through that limited amount of awareness but you chew through it really quickly. One of the biggest benefits we’ve got is, I don’t have to be the most aware, I don’t have to be the most prepared, I’ve just got to be that little bit more aware and a little bit more prepared than everyone else.
We know from studies in criminology that most criminals select targets based on the likelihood of success vs. return and why would I rob you, assault you, attack you, rape you, kidnap you, you name it if it looks like you’ll see me coming but the guy behind me won’t?”