Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Uncertainty/risk in terms of focus

I read something quite a while ago, and I’m sorry but I can’t recall where, so I can’t link to the original… but it was an article about WW1.

It was about all the young Canadians who served in the trenches, and the question was, how did they convince wave upon wave of young men to pull themselves out of the trenches and run forward towards the enemy, and get gunned down?

How come the men in the trenches didn’t watch that first wave of men get gunned down and go, “heck no, I’m not doing that”?

And the answer was something along the lines of:

If you tell a group of one hundred young men that, out of all of them, one will survive the battle, every single man in that room will completely believe that they are that 1% who will survive.

The key being, these are/were all young men.

These guys were young teenagers, none had any experience with war, with extinction/death on a huge scale, with pain, disease, fear, or killing other people, many of them also young men. They did not have the experience to recognize/manage risk. Just like in the example I used yesterday about the teenager driving in the rain for the first time, they know rain makes the road slippery, they would have had to learn that in their drivers test, but just because you ‘know’ something, doesn’t automatically make it a ‘risk’.

I think the main difference between risk and uncertainty is the idea of focus.

Humans are bombarded with information/stimuli, and over time we learn what’s important and what we can safely ignore. We can either focus really well on one thing, or we can step our perspective back a little and focus at a wider range, but we lose the specifics that we would get through focusing on a single thing.

Like with a camera lens. You can focus on a person’s face, and everything around it will be blurry, or you can focus on the ocean/sunrise, where nothing specifically in the frame is intensely sharp nor blurry.

So, when it comes to risk/uncertainty, ‘risk’ would be something we have in our viewfinder because we have experience, so we know it’s important to pay attention to. We keep those in our peripheral vision, aware of them, but not focused on them… but we can quickly switch focus because we know they are there. Like, while driving, we are aware someone is beside us and behind us, but we mostly focus on the person in front of us unless, say, the person beside us starts swerving into our lane, then our focus shifts to the side.

If we’re using the camera lens again, ‘uncertainty’ are things not visible in our viewfinder. They exist, but maybe they’re behind the camera, or too high/low to be in the frame. Going back to the driving example again, we’re aware of drivers behind/beside/in front, but we pay no attention to what’s above us. That is out of our frame of focus. This is also why a lot of accidents happen at intersections. We are so focused on the light in front of us, we fail to give proper notice to what might be coming at us from the side.

We can’t focus on everything all the time, it's impossible, but as we gain experience, we are better able to position ourselves to react when hit with the unexpected, hit with ‘uncertainty’.*

Which is why I think understanding the terms is the first step in widening that focus. If we can’t tell the difference between risk and uncertainty, we aren’t able to adapt or make choices that will position us to adapt in the future. In other words, we are more likely to rationalize/blame others instead of accepting that uncertainly is a reality which happens to everyone.

If we believe it's someone else's fault, it'll remain an 'uncertainty' for us instead of a 'risk' we could manage better in the future. So we're less likely to learn from it and less likely to anticipate a similar situation happening in the future. History repeats itself, yes?

So what does this have to do with us, as writers?

* If I was mean, this is where I would have included some stuff about Gadamer's Hermeneutical Horizon theory, but I figured this was nerdy enough.

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