How good are we at judging risk around us?

“I’ve never had a problem before, and I’ve been doing this for years!

You hear it regularly, and perhaps even say it ourselves. We use our own incident-free experience as justification for the acceptability of an activity. Here’s the problem with that: We are notoriously bad at judging many categories of risk around us. The reason is simple. “Getting away” with a risky behavior does not really prove anything, because the relative probability of an incident or injury can vary widely and still have the same result in the very limited sample that is our own experience.

Here is an example: Terry grew up in a home where his mother would cook a meal and leave the remaining food to cool on the stove, and often not refrigerate it for hours afterwards. Terry continued the practice when he began to live and cook on his own. A woman he began dating noticed the tasty batch of stew that he’d made her for dinner was left on the stove (without the burner on) not only after dinner but all the way through the rather lengthy movie that they watched. She said “Are you not keeping the leftovers?” He said, “Why would you ask that? Wasn’t it good? There’s a lot left.” She replied, “It’s just that it’s been sitting out since 7, and it’s nearly midnight now.” Terry’s answer? “It’s fine.”

In his mind it was fine. But here are some facts to consider:
– The meaty stew he cooked was clearly and demonstrably likely to have far more growth of pathogens that could cause foodborne illness when cooled that slowly and held at room temperature
– Thorough reheating of the stew, as was his common practice, could kill many types of pathogens and result in no ill effects, on two conditions 1. That heating is truly thorough, sustained, and to a sufficient temperature and 2. That there are no toxins or toxic byproducts associated with the particular organisms that affected the stew
– Terry’s own childhood and youth contained relatively frequent episodes of what his family called “stomach flu” even though the actual nature of the illness and cause were never really understood.
– Terry didn’t think that the gastrointestinal issues that he’d experienced were out of the ordinary for a typical family, largely because none were particularly severe, and perhaps more importantly because he didn’t really have any sense of how often other families experienced these illnesses.

Do you see how “It’s fine” is really not true in this case?

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