In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes. We learn to read and write but not how to deal with uncertainty: we’re risk illiterates. Why do we fear what’s unlikely to kill us? Is it true that people are basically hopeless when it comes to managing health and wealth? Some experts have concluded that Homo sapiens (“man the wise”) is a misnomer, and that John and Jane Q. Public need continuous guidance, as a child needs a parent.
Against this pessimistic view, I will argue that everyone can learn to deal with risk and uncertainty, and that experts can be part of the problem rather than the solution. A democracy needs risk-savvy citizens who cannot be easily frightened into surrendering their money, their welfare, and their liberty. We should begin to teach risk literacy to everyone.
Gerd Gigerenzer is director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy in Berlin. Previous positions he held include Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and John M. Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor, School of Law at the University of Virginia. He is also a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the German Academy of Sciences, and Batten Fellow at the Darden Business School, University of Virginia.
He received honorary doctorates from the University of Basel and the Open University of the Netherlands. Awards for his work include the AAAS Prize for the best article in the behavioral sciences, the Association of American Publishers Prize for the best book in the social and behavioral sciences, the German Psychology Award, and the Communicator Award of the German Research Foundation.
His award-winning popular books Calculated Risks, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, and Risk Savvy: How to make good decisions have been translated into 18 languages. His academic books include Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, Rationality for Mortals, and Bounded Rationality: The Adaptive Toolbox (with Reinhard Selten, a Nobel Laureate in economics). In Better Doctors, Better Patients, Better Decisions (with Sir Muir Gray) he shows how better informed doctors and patients can improve healthcare while reducing costs.
Together with the Bank of England, he is working on the project “Simple heuristics for a safer world.” Gigerenzer has trained U.S. federal judges, German physicians, and top managers in decision making and understanding risks and uncertainties.
His favourite TEDTalk: