Understanding uncertainty: The big risk test

David Spiegelhalter
Bungee jumping

How risky is this?

Do you think bungee jumping is riskier than smoking? Would you take a medicine with a 10% risk of serious side effects? Or board a plane with a 1% chance of crashing?

Risk is a very complex topic, since it's all about things we can't predict, which just about includes everything. Many aspects of risk are studied by researchers all over the world. In the Big Risk Test, which is now live as part of BBC Lab UK, we want to find out how people deal with risk, particularly to try and understand what makes people have such different opinions and feelings about life's chances.

The test is freely accessible online, it takes about 20 minutes to do, and at the end you will get a detailed analysis of your risk personality and of the factors that shape your decisions. You need to be 18 or over to take part. The boxes below show the type of questions you'll be asked, but not the actual ones — that would be giving too much away.

The test is made up of several parts. Here's what we're trying to achieve with each part.

Your feelings about risk

Do you feel that nuclear power presents a bigger risk than financial collapse?

The first part of the test asks you how you feel about certain hazards, both things that affect you individually and also bigger issues, such as climate change, that affect the whole of society. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but we do want to know how people of different ages and backgrounds feel.

Your knowledge of risk

Out of a million people in the UK, how many would you expect to be killed in a car accident each year?

This part asks you to estimate how risky different activities are, and also how likely various everyday events are to happen, such as a train being late. These questions do have right and wrong answers, and we want to know whether certain types of people, perhaps those who are better with numbers, find it easier to assess the size of risks.

Your understanding of risk

Suppose that out of 100 people like you, 12 are expected to have a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years. If they all took a drug every day, which has only minimal side effects, 2 of them would avoid having a heart attack or stroke. Would you take the drug?

Here you have to pretend you are a patient being offered a medical treatment, whose benefit is explained in terms of chances of different things happening to you. Risks can be explained in terms of words, numbers and pictures, and we would like to know which formats people like, and which help them to remember the information.

Your behaviour with risk

You could either:
(a) flip a coin — heads you win £3, tails you lose £1.
(b) throw a dice — if it's a six you win £21, anything else you lose £3.
What would you rather do, (a) or (b)?

When confronted with a choice between a fairly safe option and one that's more risky, which do you take? In this part of the test you play a game in which you try to make the most points, which allows us to study when people take more chances and when they play it safe.

Doing risk calculations

If the chance of getting a disease is 5%, how many would you expect to get it out of 200 people?

Many people have difficulties dealing with probabilities, percentages and chances. This part of the test looks at how well you can work with numbers that describe risk – it may seem a bit like being back at school, but please try your best!

Your appetite for risk

If given the opportunity, would you go skydiving?

We can take risks in different ways, perhaps with money, with adventures, or by trying out new friends and jobs. These questions look at your appetite for taking risks, and also how much you believe in luck. We use a slightly adapted version of the DOSPERT scale, an established scale for risk appetite.

Your participation in this study will help us sort out how all these different aspects of risk fit together, and to understand how they vary across different types of people. We are really grateful to everyone who joins in the Big Risk Test, and we hope that is fun to do. You may even learn something about yourself!

About the author

David Spiegelhalter

David Spiegelhalter

David Spiegelhalter is Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge. David and his team run the Understanding uncertainty website, which informs the public about issues involving risk and uncertainty.