Our Relationship to Risk

Paddlers have a complicated relationship to risk.  This relationship is further distorted by laws based a limited understanding of the value of risk in recreation.  Most laws are founded a model of risk defined as the potential for harm or loss.  As implied in this definition, many of us think of risk as a negative consequence.  Certainly law makers and law enforcers spend a great deal of time and money trying to keep us safe from the potential negative risks of daily living.  Mandatory seat belts, bicycle helmets, and health inspections of restaurants are three obvious examples.  This view is useful when the risks are assumed involuntarily, for example, when designing manufacturing standards for cars or trains.  In recreation, however, risk is often assumed voluntarily, and as a result, we need a wider definition when we talk about recreational risk.

It is useful to include the potential for reward in our definition of risk. Indeed in conversation after conversation with kayakers, most cite the potential for rewards as the reason for their ongoing participation in the sport.  In other words, most of us paddle, not in spite of the potential for harm, but because of some tangible benefit.  A quick survey of some of our paddling friends highlights some common benefits including:

  • Physical challenges and fitness
  • Exploration of the natural world
  • Social interactions with other paddlers

It is worth taking a few minutes to think about what motivates you continue paddling.

The push and pull of rewards and losses is particularly evident in many of the narratives of exploration and adventure that line our bookselves.  Certainly, if folks like Magellan, Terry Fox, and others only considered the potential for loss, our lives, our cultures, would be that much poorer.  Defined in this wider way, risk exists along a continuum defined by loss and reward.  How do we reconcile these seemingly opposed visions?

At the level of the individual, I think the answer rests with a concept call the “Dangerous Edge”, a concept originally articulated by Michael Apter, and modified for this discussion. The Dangerous Edge exists at the boundary between excitement and anxiety, relaxation and boredom.  Recreation is voluntary; we choose to participate, often seeking the rewards of excitement and/or relaxation.  On trip, and indeed, throughout our lives, we are looking to optimize our level of arousal (in the clinical sense!).  If we are over stimulated, we can easily cross the Dangerous Edge from excitement (reward) to anxiety (loss).  Conversely, if we are under stimulated, we also cross the Dangerous Edge from relaxation (reward) to boredom (loss).  Viewed this way, we modify our exposure to risk according to our needs, seeking an optimally level of arousal that balances rewards and losses. At the societal level, this model of risk as a balancing of loss and reward is best articulated by Gerald Wilde in his two books Target Risk and Target Risk II.

This model of risk implies that we actually need some risk in our lives, and recreation is one important source.  When setting goals and laying out expectations for wilderness travel, it is important to understand what end of the continuum you are moving toward (relaxation or excitement); and, where your Dangerous Edge lies.

Now all we need to do is convince law makers to expand their definition of risk and get them to design laws that also consider the potential for rewards.