Chris Bellavita hopes the QHSR will advance homeland security. I fear too few will engage the QHSR to produce a sufficient effect. (Chris, btw bases his hope on evidence from the first QHSR while I deploy mostly worry and cynicism.)
Parents in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere hope their children will find a better life in the United States. Others in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District, Murietta, California, and elsewhere fear these children will unravel the rule of law.
Some Sunni Salafist fighters hope they are creating the foundations of a just and righteous society across what is now Northern Syria and Iraq, eventually the whole world. Many Shia faithful and others fear they are numbered among the unrighteous to be converted or killed.
Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and many geeks still unknown, hope to bring the whole world into our hand-helds, opening exciting opportunities for meaningful relationships and untold riches. Some of us fear our credit-scores — and more substantive identities — are being delivered into the hands of criminals, terrorists, con-artists, corporate voyeurs, NSA spooks and more.
The current Executive hopes to establish and consistently apply a rigorous set of principles and due process by which evil can be prevented and sacred values preserved (while sources and methods are protected). Senators Paul and Wyden among others fear that any hidden act claimed as lawful is a hot-house of hubris where the very best intentions will be incrementally reversed.
They want to retire to the beauty of the shore or mountainside or river or forest or such. The prospect of hurricane, flood, earthquake, and fire prompt some second-thoughts.
We are tempted — especially those of us in homeland security — to treat risk as something that might be measured as accurately as an average shoe-size… if only we can gather enough shoes. Imelda where art thou?
But the risk that matters most may be imagined more than measured. Big hirsute Hobbit feet may be the common heuristic, no matter how many ballerinas bounce about us.
Over thirty years ago Tversky and Kahneman showed us, “Decision making under risk can be viewed as a choice between prospects or gambles.” It is how we frame our expectations that decide our perspective on risk and thereby determine what choices seem rational.
For most our frame-on-reality is decided by a reference point: typically an expectation of the status quo persisting. If we are more-or-less satisfied (or psychologically risk-averse) we worry more over the prospect of losing than embrace an opportunity to gain. This can apply even if we have little to lose. We tend to over-weight the downside and under-estimate positive likelihood.
Unless we are risk-seeking. As is typical with criminals, terrorists, and teenage boys. By the early 1990s Tversky and Kahneman had found, “Risk-seeking choices are consistently observed in two classes of decision problems. First, people often prefer a small probability of winning a large prize over the expected value of that prospect. Second, risk seeking is prevalent when people must choose between a sure loss and a substantial probability of a larger loss.”
There are other variations of human rationality that do not square with “expected utility” (rationality according to economists). But risk-seeking has particular relevance for homeland security.
When my great-grandfather returned to England from another colonial war and had the audacity to marry a Scots seamstress of another (Christian) faith, they faced the disdain of family and very constrained prospects. Perceiving only losses to lose, he and she set out for Philadelphia. The risk was real, but seemed less to them than remaining in Newcastle.
Nineteenth century Newcastle had a murder-rate considerably less than today’s Tegucigalpa (10 per million versus 1690 per million). Who says the parent of the eight-year-old in the picture above has not made a reasonable calculation?
Today I will purchase a lottery ticket with a small probability of winning a large prize. Early this week a new Caliphate was proclaimed. Was the self-styled Caliph’s reasoning all that different than mine?
There are too many whose reference point is a land-of-loss, especially loss of hope. The risks they are willing to take — heroic or demonic depending on taste — are worth our notice, a touch of fear, and some courageous creativity. If reduction of risk-seeking is a goal, our target is their prospective imagination.