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What Can Alex Honnold Teach Us About Risk?

Posted by Jonathan Klane on Apr 13, 2021 11:49:18 AM

Do you know who Alex Honnold is? If you’re a rock climber or a fan of it, you surely do. Or if you watched the documentary Free Solo, then you definitely do. 

Yes, he’s that guy. He climbed El Capitan “free solo” – without a rope, just him, using his hands or fingers and his feet or toes at times. To say it’s impressive is like saying the Eiffel Tower is a nice metal structure. 

It doesn’t do it justice.  

So, what can Alex teach us about risk? Good question. In addition to the first free solo of El Capitan, he holds the fastest ascent of the Yosemite triple crown

But he doesn’t limit his climbs to nature’s tall wonders. He also has climbed the outside of several buildings – yes, free solo.  

His preparations, routine, practice, skills, etc., decrease the probability of a negative outcome. 

“For every hard pitch I’ve soloed, I’ve probably soloed a hundred easy pitches.” The repetitions and practice enable a higher skill level than one might appreciate at first thought.

He also rehearses each move and visualizes them. He has even visualized everything that could go wrong in the run-up to a challenging climb, including falling onto the rocks below and dying. A process we would call a pre-mortem. Visualization is a helpful technique used by athletes and others to prepare for a challenging situation mentally. Guided visualization is a training approach that I’ve used in some courses I’ve taught.  

All of this preparation, mental and physical, helps to get ready for the actual event. All of which helps decrease the probability of a negative outcome, which reduces its risk. I’ll let Alex explain it – he sums it up nicely (as they say, “brevity is wit”).

Here is his quote that got my initial attention, and I thought, yup, that makes perfect sense to me. 

“I differentiate between risk and consequence. Sure, falling from this building is a high consequence, but, for me, it’s low risk.” He’s right, of course. For anyone, it’s a high consequence (i.e., death) – yup. But for him, it’s low risk, specifically due to the very low probability of a negative outcome. Risk involves both consequence and probability (and we can toss in exposure, too, as it can helpfully add a third dimension).

If you’re familiar with the typical risk matrix (or if not, just visualize it), we have a standard two-axis graph. Consequence (a bad outcome) is usually the vertical or y-axis, and probability (likelihood or odds) is usually the horizontal or x-axis. If we need or want to add in exposure (how much one is exposed or how many of us are), it’d be the z-axis coming out to get a 3-dimensional model.  

Due to our evolution and brains as humans, we aren’t good at differentiating possibility from probability. 

The result is that we tend to over-focus on the consequence (potential lousy outcome) and under focus on the probability (likelihood). So, going back to our 2-axis risk matrix, the upper left corner – high consequence/low probability – tends to get and keep our attention – it pings our threat and risk center in our brain in a very visceral and affective way. 

It’s real, and it’s emotional. It should come as no surprise that many people have wondered if Alex’s brain might be wired a bit differently from the rest of us. 

So too have researchers in this field. 

So, Alex volunteered to allow Dr. Jane Joseph, the first neuroscientist to study fMRIs of thrill-seekers, to conduct a study of Alex’s amygdala (threat and thus the risk center) compared with a similar control subject. His lack of response to stimuli of the amygdala of his brain fascinated the researchers and others. Images were flashed in front of his eyes – ones that “stimulate” threat or arousal. Some are so awful that Dr. Joseph can’t stand to view them. They tend to affect us all similarly. Well, not quite all of us – they don’t affect Alex, his amygdala doesn’t fire (light up in the scans). He is rather blasé about the imagery shown in the scans, “… I was like, whatever.” He also compared it to “… looking through a curio museum.”

Instead of taking us down the sci-fi-ish rabbit hole of rewiring our brains to diminish our amygdala firing, let’s focus on probability.  [Note: I’m likely to focus on sci-fi as a tool to aid us in exploring psychosocial complexities and possibilities via narrative, so please stay tuned!]. 

If we can imitate, or at least imagine, Alex’s approach, we can be more analytical about probability and thus risk. 

This can be as simple as reworking how we think of and word our risk statements.  

We often say, “It could happen.” Instead, let’s try substituting probability into it. “What would have to occur for this actually to happen? And how would that occur? Under what set of circumstances?” In other words, we can ask, “How likely is it?” Yes, it’s longer and more complex than our first statement of possibility. But it facilitates focusing on probability instead. And that is risk.  

Ever wondered how much of one’s life is spent on our greatest passion? It can be an amazing amount of time. We become experts in it. It can be rock-climbing, risk perceptions, or engineering. Or any of a myriad of other wonderous areas of study. 

Besides the passionate pursuit, the commonality is our accumulation of experiences, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and expertise.  

All of which can help us better understand both the consequences and the probabilities of our work. 

The conversations I’ve had with engineering (and other) scientists and researchers have been some of the most fascinating and fun ones in my career! Somehow, they all eventually get back to the topic of risk. And I’ve found that experts in their fields know risk pretty darned well.

In the upcoming micro-blogs in this series, “Risk is a 4-letter word” (readable in 4 minutes or so), we’ll continue to explore the concept of risk and the cognitive science that supports it. If you’re at all like me, I think you’ll find it fascinating, enlightening, and helpful. 

How are you framing the concept of risk in your own contexts?  

Next: System 1 or System 2 thinking – which are we all using?


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