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Risky behaviour has been much in the news over the last few months in the context of the imprudent activities of banks and financiers alike. Current media reaction to the Swine Flu outbreak gives us a different take on how we perceive and respond to risk but based on the same febrile reporting. Over the last few days news broadcasts have devoted up to 50% of their time to coverage of the outbreak. Making the assumption that this reflects public concern (and not just journalistic ambulance chasing), what do we learn about how we perceive such threats?

I was first struck by the perversity of human reactions to risk way back in the 70s, when Kahneman and Tversky were conducting their gambling experiments, showing amongst other things just how bad humans are at using probability information to judge risk. They identified a number of cognitive short cuts or heuristics that people use in place of logic; for example the availability heuristic – how easily can a threat be brought to mind, how vivid is it? Fundamentally any risk assessment serves the purpose of driving our threat avoidance behaviour. This particular bias means that information or ‘news’ that feeds our fevered imaginations is likely to inflate our personal assessment of threat.

But back to Swine Flu; our inaccuracy in assessing true risk comes in large part from our ignoring prevalence as a key factor in assessing a threat. Ignoring or underplaying prevalence is why we are scared of shark attack (also pretty vivid!) and blasé in response to much more prevalent threats such as obesity. Put this all together and the faulty logic goes something like this:

‘People coming back from Mexico have Swine Fever: ergo, if you go to Mexico you will get Swine Fever!’ (Not – ‘a very very few people coming back from Mexico….' etc)

In reality the chances of becoming infected in Mexico must be many thousands to one against. You probably have a higher chance of being knocked down by a car in Mexico!

Now I, like you, am extremely glad that health professionals are advocating a proportionate response to the actual threat as it is currently understood. We will know that our biases have been fully triggered when we and the politicians start to respond to the perceived threat; the wearing of face masks and queues for vaccine will be pretty good indicators and you can bet that fevered reporters will be quick to let us know!

Trouble is I am just as prone to these biases as everyone else; so, Cancun for a cheap holiday? Probably not….what about you?

A lot of nonsense has been written about Generation Y – the cohort of young adults who are supposed to be characterised by their demanding expectations and their insistence on balance in their working life. Nonsense I have read recently includes:

“… Take Tanya…with her strong aspirations, her independence, her proactivity, and her need to achieve fulfilment as well as a good salary…she is typical of the Gen Y-ers born after 1980”

Now hang on a minute, since when was it sensible to describe any generation in this clone like way? Imagine this….

“… Take Henry… with his dutiful loyalty, his conformity, his obedience to organisational norms and his willingness to grind out a career…he is typical of the generation born after 1945”

What about Branson, what about Sugar, what about Roddick?

Since when did the generation you were born into have the power to determine the basic parameters of your personality? Yes, I do know some confident, independent, technically savvy, career minded twentysomethings: but I also know some insecure, lazy, daft ones, just like I do thirtysomethings and fortysomethings. In other words, people who have graduated since – say 2002 – are subject to the same variation in Big 5 personality characteristics as the rest of us; or did I miss some post millennial re-engineering of our brain chemistry? I believe that the most you can say about this cohort is that they were educated and sought jobs at a time when the employment environment was very benign and their expectations high.

Stereotyping a whole cohort of individuals in the way that the ‘Generation Y’ label does is, at best, lazy thinking and at worst an example of the kind of cognitive error that Richard Dawkins calls the ‘discontinuous mind’; characterised by a tendency to lump things together inappropriately and draw hard lines between them. I bet that sometime soon you will see an article called ‘How is Gen Y coping with the credit crunch?’ - as if a whole generation is fated – aspirationally of course – to wander in the employment desert for the next couple of years. Alternatively, expect articles and a new stereotype from the pundits*, describing the disappointed angst filled group whose dreams were brought to dust by sub- prime. The articles will be suspect – based on discontinuous thinking rather than much more relevant individual differences –as suspect as any leader article you have ever read that starts “The youth of today….”!

Yes, we can say goodbye to Generation Y, not because the employment environment no longer suits their psychological ‘DNA’ and thus dooms them to extinction, but mostly because they never existed in the first place.

* I’d place a small wager on a reawakening of the old Prodigy album title ‘The Jilted Generation’ – remember you saw it here first! .

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