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May 09, 2013

The Risks of Risk Aversion (the Comfort in Conformity)

May 09, 2013

I work in a culture that encourages some amount of risk taking. The philosophy behind this culture is that innovation most often occurs when one isn’t afraid to color outside of the lines or think outside of the box (pun intended). In the technology industry, innovation is the best way to remain relevant and profitable. Hence, SmallBox has a propensity toward risk taking in the name of innovation.

This is going somewhere, I promise. But first, a brief (and highly simplified) lesson on the brain and social sciences…

Humans seem to be hardwired to avoid risk, even the risk of negative social repercussions, such as being ostracized or belittled.

Neuroscience teaches us (well, those of us who took the course… twice) that the amygdala (also known as part of the “lizard brain”) is at least partly to blame for our risk aversion, as it controls our emotions and our responses to fear. It is the instinctual part of our brains, and we share this primitive brain-part with many other species.

The frontal lobe is a relatively new (on the evolutionary scale) adaptation most prominent in humans. The frontal lobe ranks just above opposable thumbs as the number one reason for our position at the top of the food chain. It allows us to reason, strategize, and imagine. All in all, it’s a pretty awesome adaptation.

Here’s the thing. The combination of the amygdala and the frontal lobe can create some amazingly stupid behaviors.

Here’s how it works, in short. First, we perceive a situation that we should probably avoid, at first glance. This causes the amygdala to trigger our fear reflex (sometimes dubbed “fight or flight”). Then our frontal lobes begin interpreting the instinctive responses, rationalizing the sudden desire to flee. Over the course of milliseconds, our brains make it seem perfectly reasonable to avoid situations that we haven’t even completely thought through. By the time we do think the situation through completely, it is often too late to change course.

Sociologists and psychologists see two practical applications of this science when observing the behaviors of people in groups.

The first is often referred to as “mob mentality.” When we see a large group of people doing something, even something stupid, we feel the urge to join in. We feel the need to conform. From the perspective of thousands of generations of brain evolution, it only makes sense to follow the crowd, to fit in. That is how the prehistoric us survived, by sticking to the tribe of people just like us. Safety in numbers and all that...

There is a similar, though slightly different behavior known as the “bystander effect.” This phenomenon is what makes it okay for each of us, as individuals, to ignore the plight of a stranger, no matter the circumstance. So long as the vast majority of our cohorts are ignoring the misery of an individual, so too can we. Most often this manifests in unimpressive ways, like in avoiding giving a homeless man some change as your crowd walks by. But, there are some truly spectacular applications of this principle, as in the rape cases of Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott, or the murder case of Kitty Genovese. We can ignore some truly appalling situations in the name of risk aversion.

But that’s enough science for now.

All this basically to point out that our brains are not our allies when it comes to assessing risk. Our first instinct is to avoid conflict or drawing too much attention to ourselves, and to conform to behaviors viewed as acceptable to the majority.

The problem is, if we do not take the risks involved in asking hard questions, pointing out the potential flaws of widely accepted solutions or engaging in conflict with our colleagues, we’re unlikely to add much value to our organizations. If we don’t risk failing spectacularly while trying something new, we’ll never succeed at anything great… or worse yet, we’ll never fail and learn to be better for it.

What risks have you taken lately?

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