Sunday, June 10, 2012

Until you do it, it’s still an unknown...

No matter how well you prepare, and how much you might think you understand a risk, there is a special category of risks which are worthy of the title...

"Until you do it, it's still an unknown.

One of my personal heroes made history with just this type of risk. Joe Kittinger rode a balloon to 102,800 feet (31,300 m) then stepped out into space.
He fell for four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour (988 km/h) before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500 m). Pressurization in his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent, and his right hand swelled up to twice its normal size. He set records for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall (four minutes), and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.  To give you an idea, just how amazing this is, he set these records on August 16th, 1960 and they are yet to be beaten.

That could be about to change however, with a "giant leap for one man" later this year. Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner will jump from a pressurized capsule under a balloon at 120,000 feet wearing  only a spacesuit.
Felix Baumgartner and Joe Kittinger beside the capsule that will take Baumgartner into space

Jonathan Clark, the medical director for Red Bull Stratos, the team assembled to help Baumgartner reach his lofty goal, gets credit for coining a new category of risk management, describing this amazing feat "Until you do it, it's still an unknown." As he plummets 23 miles in the highest skydive ever, Baumgartner will possibly become the first person to break the sound barrier in free fall but the uncertainties are countless:

  • What happens when Baumgartner encounters the shockwaves that will occur when he breaks the speed of sound?
  • How many things have to go right for him to succeed?
  • What's the likelihood of everything going right?
  • What are the consequences of a failure in components x, y or z?
  • Instability in freefall is one of the biggest risks for normal skydiving. Only one person in history has jumped from this height and instability plagued much of his fall until he opened his drogue shute. 

The modern parachute was invented in the late 18th century by Louis-S├ębastien Lenormand in France, who made the first recorded public jump in 1783. Since then parachuting has evolved in many ways but it’s still unclear what will happen when Baumgartner steps out of his capsule. Whatever happens, it's a groundbreaking feat - in more than 50 years no one has been able to (or been courageous enough) to free-fall from higher than 102,800 feet.

Until you do it, it’s still an unknown,”

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Blame it on the genes..

It looks like it's official! Risk preferences are central to any model of human decision making but researchers are increasingly able to identify a link between our genetic makeup and our risk taking behaviour.

We've recognised for a long time that there are substantial differences in peoples willingness to trade off risk versus reward. Some of the variation in preferences can be explained by gender, race, culture, age, education and socioeconomic status but none of these differentiators were sufficient of themselves to explain the variation.  Research by Camelia Kuhnen and Joan Chiao of Northwestern University in the journal PLoS ONE, was able to link financial investment risk-taking to variations in certain genes that regulate chemicals in the brain.

In particular, it appears that those of use who enjoy risk taking, whether day-trading or motorcycling are likely to have specific differentes in our Dopamine Receptor D4 (DRD4) gene.  Without getting overly technical, it appears likely that 25% of the individual variation in risk taking can be explained by heritable differences.

It's early days yet of course, and risky to confuse cause with correlation but it appears that there is a definite genetic trait at play. For those of you who are really curious, you'll find more technical details in 'The 7R polymorphism in the dopamine receptor D4 gene (DRD4) is associated with financial risk taking in men' at Evolution and Human Behavior 30 (2009) 85–92.

For an easier read, New Scientist speculates that DRD4 could be responsible for the human migrated out of Africa around 50,000 years ago. Even to the point where DRD4 has moved us across the planet, thanks to a propensity for risk-taking and adventurousness. DRD4 comes in may shapes and forms whereby the 4R allele, is associated with being even-tempered, reflective and prudent. Ie. People who like to manage risk to be ALARP (as low as reasonably practicable).

Those of us more inclined to manage risk to be AHARP (as high as reasonably practicable) probably have the less common 7R and 2R versions, which by contrast have been linked to impulsive and exploratory behaviour, risk-taking and the ability to shrug off new situations. In short, the migrants with these versions were better able to deal with dangerous, fluctuating situations and more likely to survive and reproduce under those conditions.

So, before you have that risk conversation with your spouse or colleague at work, think about just how deep seated their risk attitude may in fact be.  Culture, perception, gender, education, age and many other factors are important but, in part at least, we can be pretty confident that it's hardwired.