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More Risky or More Aware of Risk?

Jan 14, 2015

I've had a few conversations recently with some people who seem more worried about how dark and scary times feel today. Terrorism, pandemic disease, healthcare, natural disasters and other things seem to make us worry about losing our lives, our children, our homes, our health, or even our wealth. Each nightly news report brings us reports of death, disaster, and loss that is so hard to comprehend. So, is today "riskier" than yesterday? Is tomorrow scarier than it was 50, 100, or 200 years ago?

I personally don't think so. In the wake of two World Wars, the Dust Bowl, the hurricanes, the Civil War, and plagues, pestilences, and diseases, we are healthier, safer, and more likely to live to old age than we have ever been in the history of mankind. I do think we think about risk, terrorism, loss, hazards, risk management, risk transfer, and all of the scary things that COULD happen much, much, much more than we ever did.

Google has an interesting search function, that actually looks at the frequency a word has appeared in the Google Books library. From 1800-2008, the above Ngram chart shows the frequency the word appears in their body of English writings. (Learn more about Ngrams here.)

Its can be an interesting macro look at how our culture use and views phrases, words, and ideas over time, and in the above case - the use of the word "Risk" In this case, its pretty remarkable that risk had fairly steady use over time, and then, some where in the 60's, this concept of "risk" began to appear more regularly in our writings. Certainly the release in 1957 of the game "Risk: The Game of Global Domination" might have some small part in the increased use of the word in popular culture, but not the kind of spike you'd see in the above graph.

Other phrases also show interesting trends:

  • "Terror" shows a steady decline across the 200 years, along with "fear"
  • "Terrorism" shows a sharp spike in the 1980s - -after being relatively non existent prior to 1900
  • "War" spikes in the 40s and 50s, but has been in a decline for some time.
  • "Hope" is at an all-time low.

In any regard, its unique that Risk, Risk Transfer, and Risk Management all have seen significant increases in usage in the last 40-50 years, and really, have spiked in the last 20. I worry and wonder that we have become a fearful nation, and a fearful globe, and that while we should be protective of our lives, our children, our safety, and our homes, I wonder if we we couldn't all do for a bit more "hope..."

Originally posted on LinkedIn. Join the conversation over there.