A Personal Perspective on Context and Risk Taking


Most of our blog posts focus on current thinking about various aspects of safety and human performance and are an attempt to not only contribute to that discussion but to generate further discussion as well. I can’t think of an instance when we took a personal perspective on the subject, but an experience that I had a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about willingness to take risk and how context really does play a crucial role in that decision. I was attending a weekend long family reunion in the Texas hill country where we had 25 family members all staying together in a lodge that we had rented. It was a terrific weekend with a lot of food, fun, reminiscing and watching young cousins really get to know each other for the first time. My nephew brought his boat so that the adventuresome could try their hand at tubing on the river that ran by the property. I decided that since I had engaged in this activity many times in the past that I would simply act as a spotter for my nephew and watch my kids and their kids enjoy the fun. (Actually I was thinking that the rough water and bouncing of the tube would probably have my body hurting for the next week. This, I contend was a good evaluation of risk followed by good decision making).

There was also a rope swing attached to a tree next to the water allowing for high flight followed by a dip in the rather cold river water that attracted everyone to watch the young try their hand at this activity. There were actually two levels from which to begin the adventure over the water, one at the level of the river and one from a wall about 10-feet higher. All of the really young and really old (i.e. my brother-in-law) tried their hand at the rope from the level of the water and all were successful including my older brother-in-law. I arrived at the rope swing shortly after he had made his plunge only to have him and his supporting cast challenge me to take part. I told them that I would think about it and this is where “context” really impacted my decision to take a risk. The last time I had swung on a rope and dropped into water was probably 20 years ago. At that time I would swing out and complete a flip before I entered the water. No reason not to do the same thing now….right? No way I could accomplish this feat in front of my wife, sister, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, not to mention my brother-in-law, by starting from the waters edge. It would have to be from the 10-foot launching point. In my mind, at that moment this all sounded completely reasonable, not to mention fun! As I took my position on the wall I was thinking to myself that all I needed to do was perform like I did last time (20 years ago) and everything would be great. I was successful in getting out over the water before letting go, (needless to say that I didn’t perform the flip that I had imagined…..seems that upper body strength at 65 is less than at 45). I’m not sure how it happened, but I ended up injuring the knuckle on one of my fingers and I woke up the next morning with a stiff left shoulder. By the way, two weeks later I am feeling much better as the swelling in my finger and stiffness in my shoulder are almost gone.

As I reflect on the event, I am amazed at how the context (peer pressure, past success, cheering from my grandchildren, failure to assess my physical condition, etc) led to a decision that was completely rational to me in the moment. I am pretty sure that the memory of the pain for the next several days afterwards will impact my decision making should such an opportunity arise again. Next time I will enter from the waters edge!