Monday, January 19, 2015


I always feel like I should put a giant blinking “warning!” sign up when I click into over-analytical-mode.

These posts never get many comments, but I do get more emails than normal. Please, as always, comment, question, criticize, or throw ripe fruit in my general direction. Go all out, and if you send me an email, I will answer.

And the disclaimer: these nerdy posts are 100% opinion, please read all instructions carefully, keep away from small children, and have Poison Control on speed-dial.

I was nearly positive I’d already written a nerdy post in the past about uncertainty/risk, but searching my posts for the words turned up nothing.

The difference between uncertainty and risk is super interesting to me, and I think quite relevant to writers.

So let’s start off with how they’re different?

Risk is something you can manage. For example, if you get in your car when it’s pouring rain, you will mentally tell yourself, “The roads are slippery, my control will be less than normal, so if I slow down by 10km (or 5 miles for you Americans), I will be better able to react if the car in front of me slams on their brakes.”

That’s risk. Weighing the boundaries of what could go wrong and where the safe zone is. Those boundaries are things we learn through experience, either our own (slamming on the brakes, but going too fast to stop properly and hitting someone/etc) or through other people’s experiences (watching that happen to someone else, or having a friend/family member tell you).

We learn what those boundaries of safety are through experience, which means the younger you are, the less experience you have, therefore the younger you are, the less able you are to judge the safety/success of something.

This is why we get more conservative as we get older. We understand risk, and we manage it by slowing down 10km in the rain.

Uncertainty is when something unexpected slaps you in the face. This is the teenager driving in the rain for the very first time and maintaining the usual driving speed/distance as if they were driving on a dry/clear road. The car in front of them slams on their brakes, the teenager slams on their brakes… and someone behind rear-ends them.

Uncertainly is something we don’t have experience to plan for/manage. It’s something hypothetical that could happen, but is so unlikely we don’t even consider it possible.

Like, we take out house insurance for flood/fire, but we don’t take insurance for an asteroid striking the earth and obliterating our new above-ground pool.

Depending where we live, depending what our everyday lives and experiences are like, risk vs uncertainty can be very different things.

For example, I live in Vancouver, BC (Canada). Something that I would think so unlikely that I don’t consider possible would be a massive terrorist attack, like missiles crashing down on the street 50 feet away. For me, this falls into the ‘Uncertainty’ category. I would have no idea what to do, no past experience to draw from, no plan of how to manage this.

Now, if I lived in a different part of the world, missiles falling in the street might not be an uncertainty, they could be a risk. It’s a very real possibility when most people would have experienced it or heard about it happening to someone else. They would have a plan, they would know how to better manage this kind of event.

This is why we have fire drills and things like that, to gain experience for an unlikely situation.

Another example would be the terrible tragedy that happened almost 10 years ago in New Orleans. Yes, there was the potential of the entire city flooding, but it seemed so unlikely that no one had a plan for it, no one knew how to manage it. It wasn’t a ‘risk’, it was an ‘uncertainty’.

Now, the funny thing about uncertainty is that people generally deal with it in two ways.

1) They rationalize it. If we think back to the New Orleans tragedy, how many people after-the-fact said, “I knew that would happen.” That is them rationalizing the situation. Yes, the information was there, yes, people knew there was a possibility of flooding, but because it was unlikely, they did nothing about it and then it slapped them in the face. The teenager in the car knows rain makes the road slippery, but still doesn’t slow down/manage the risk because they feel it’s unlikely to happen, and doesn't consider that someone behind them won't be able to stop very well either if they unexpectedly slam on their brakes.

2) They blame someone else. When surprised, one of the most natural things is to look for a scape-goat. New Orleans? I’m sure you can think of a dozen people, maybe more, who were blamed… but it's not like any of them were directly responsible. They, like hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, just didn't think a flood was likely to happen. The same with the teenager getting rear-ended by another car, their first reaction will probably be to blame the other driver, but if the teen had been driving safely and planning for poorer driving conditions due to the rain, it's very likely the accident could have been avoided. But due to their lack of experience, the thought wouldn't even occur to the brand new teen driver.

By definition, you can't plan/manage/expect uncertainty, so rationalizing and blaming others isn't helpful. They are both self-comforting mechanisms to convince yourself that you have more control than you really do. Being out of control is scary, and usually that makes people panic and get angry.

The thing is, if we understand the difference between 'risk' and 'uncertainty', when we are hit with something unexpected we would be better able to recognize the difference, and rather than panic/blame others, instead we could learn -> gain experience, and be better able to handle a similar incident in the future.

If you don't learn from it, well, it's pretty likely you'll be rear-ended again in the future...

So, are we all clear on the difference between the two words?

Okay, so in the next few posts, I'm going to talk about:

Uncertainty/risk as a matter of focus

Uncertainty/risk as a writer

Uncertainty/risk in terms of character

Uncertainty/risk in terms of plot

These posts are going to be a progressive series, one leading into the next, but I’m breaking them up because I know my nerdy posts are heavy-reading. Hopefully they will be more palatable in smaller bites.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)