Lesson: RISK (C1-C2)

  • Sharing opinions on themes related to travel and security.
  • Discussing the results of an experiment and describing biases.
  • Listening to a speaker at a public conference and summarising parts of a talk.

1. Here are some phrases you might hear or read when travelling by plane. Put them in order of when you would encounter them, from the first to the last:

a. Do you have any bags to check in?
b. Would you like to purchase priority boarding?
c. Do you have any liquids, gels, or pastes?
d. Please present your boarding pass and have your passport open at the relevant page.
e. All passengers on flight MX937 to Hamburg, please proceed to gate 14a.
f. Please keep your seatbelts fastened until the seatbelt sign above your head has been switched off.
g. Would you like an aisle seat or a window seat?
h. Do you have anything to declare?
i. We have held your bag back for further screening.

For answers, click here.

2. Speak:

When was the last time you flew?

Do you enjoy flying? – why/ why not?

Do you usually bring hold luggage or rely on hand luggage?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of bringing checked luggage?

Have you ever had anything confiscated by airport security?

Have you ever carried anything through an airport that you shouldn’t have had?

3. Discuss:

How important is airport security?

How effective do you think it is?

4. Here are two infographics. Describe what they show.

The first one is from the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, which operates the security checkpoints at most US airports.

https://www.tsa.gov/sites/default/files/firearms_discovered_tsa_checkpoints_2020_3.pdf

The second is about the TSA, but is provided by a company that operates private flights.

https://flyxo.com/blog/hassle-tsa-infographic/

5. Think and then discuss:

  • What are the misfortunes or dangers that can happen during a journey by plane?
    (for example, lost luggage, a 2-hour delay, engine failure, a hijacking…)
  • What are the chances of these events happening on your next flight?
    (almost no chance, a slim chance, a reasonable chance…)
  • How safe is air travel compared to other forms of transport?

6. Let’s talk more generally about risk.

To do this, we’re going to recreate a social science experiment from the early 1980s by Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff and Sarah Liechtenstein.

In the experiment, people were asked to rank a list of thirty things according to how dangerous they were. The most dangerous got a rank of 1, the second most dangerous got a score of 2, down to the least dangerous at number 30.

I’d like you to choose your top six (ranked 1-6) dangers from the list below, and also say what you think should be bottom of the list (ranked 30).

  • Alcoholic beverages (alcoholic drinks)
  • Bicycles
  • Commercial aviation (flying with an airline)
  • Contraceptives
  • Electric power
  • Fire fighting
  • Food coloring
  • Food preservatives
  • General (private) aviation (private jets)
  • Handguns
  • High school and college football (that’s American football)
  • Home appliances
  • Hunting
  • Large construction (dams, bridges, etc.)
  • Motorcycles
  • Motor vehicles
  • Mountain climbing
  • Nuclear power
  • Pesticides
  • Power mowers
  • Police work
  • Prescription antibiotics
  • Railroads
  • Skiing
  • Smoking
  • Spray cans
  • Surgery
  • Swimming
  • Vaccinations
  • X-rays

7. Now share your lists with your classmates.

To what extent do you agree/ disagree?

How did you make decisions on which things are most risky?

If this list was updated for us now, twenty-something years later, which new dangers would need to be included?

8. The results of the original experiment were interesting!

The researchers asked four particular groups of people for their answers. These were:

  • Members of the Oregon ‘League of Women Voters’ and their partners. These are adults with some interest in politics and news in general.
  • College students.
  • Members of the ‘Active Club’. These are business and professional people who organise charity work and mentor young people.
  • Security experts, including a geographer, a biochemist, a biologist, a lawyer and an economist.

How do you think these groups differed from you and your classmates?

Can you predict what they would have chosen as the top five risks?

To check if you guessed correctly, click on this link and go to page 27.

9. Think and then discuss:

Security experts have used this experiment to talk about the biases which affect people’s perception of risk. These biases cause the public to overestimate some risks and to underestimate others.

  • Can you think what these biases are? For example, what makes terrorism seem more dangerous than road traffic, when we know that road accidents cause more casualties every year?

10. Let’s look at some vocabulary:

Which of these words mean the same as overestimate, and which mean the same as underestimate?

  • exaggerate, downplay, overplay

Answers can be found here.

11. Now we’re going to listen to part of a more recent talk, by security expert Bruce Schneier.

He talks first about why humans are so bad at evaluating modern-day risks, and then mentions four specific biases that affect our idea of risk.

  • According to Schneier, what is the general problem in humans’ ability to evaluate risks?
  • Can you pick out the four biases that he mentions?

Answers, and a further exercise, are available here.

12. Discuss:

Based on this video-clip, what do you think Bruce Schneier would say about:
– the effectiveness of airport security.
– how important it is to have strict controls on what passengers can take on an aircraft.
(To find out what he really does say, check out this video).

Can you think of some other areas of life, or recent news stories, where people disagree about the level of risk?

For example:
– the effects of the Covid virus versus the side-effects of vaccines
– the effects climate change versus the economic risks of making transport more expensive
– surveillance versus crime

Pick an issue and write some questions to ask your classmates about their viewpoint.


Acknowledgements and Links
Parts of this lesson are based on the work of Paul Slovic, Baruch Fischhoff, Sarah Liechtenstein and others, and in particular three texts, which I accessed online.

B. Fischhoff, P. Slovic, S. Lichtenstein, S. Read, B. Combs: How safe is safe enough? A psychometric study of attitudes towards technological risks and benefits, in Policy Sciences, 9 (2) (1978), pp. 127-152, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company. Reproduced online here.

P. Slovic, B. Fischhoff, S. Lichtenstein: Facts and Fears: Societal Perception of Risk, in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 (1980), pp. 497-502, ed. Kent B. Monroe, Association for Consumer Research, Ann Arbor, MI. Reproduced online here.

P. Slovic, B. Fischhoff, S. Lichtenstein: Perceived Risk: Psychological Factors and Social Implications, in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, Vol 376, Issu 1764 (1981). Available online here and here.

The video I used in the lesson is a TED talk by Bruce Schneier. The TED organisation has a website here, and Bruce Schneier’s site can be found here.

The cover image is from Skitterphoto, at Pexels.

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