I’m a single mom of three teens and was asked to feed the missionaries this week. They proposed a 20 year old man come with the missionaries to dinner (to get around the ridiculous rule that the missionaries can’t be alone with me). I politely said something to the effect that it felt uncomfortable to have a male chaperone in my own home and that I wasn’t agreeable to what would feel like a supervised visit. I offered to bring them snacks and water on the porch if they weren’t allowed in my house. Does anyone else find being supervised by a male half their age in the own home condescending?

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A well known fact of life is that we tend to overreact to the wrong risks. For example, a few years, near Fort Worth, a full sized tiger escaped and attacked a guy working on the grounds. Suddenly people were more worried about tiger attacks than automobile accidents.

Hikers on the Appalachian Trail often get asked about bears and how they plan to deal with them — especially in protecting their food. While any hiker should be situationally aware, and you should not take foolish risks, the biggest threat to your food is mice and chipmunks (both often referred to as “the little bears.”). [Note, bears are something that you need to be careful about, but much easier to protect against than mice and other rodents.]

There is even a good paper from Harvard about the overreaction to the wrong risks. To quote from the abstract:

” Such risks, which usually involve high consequences, tend to have low probabilities, since life today is no longer nasty, brutish and short. In the face of a low-probability fearsome risk, people often exaggerate the benefits of preventive, risk-reducing, or ameliorative measures. In both personal life and politics, the result is damaging overreactions to risks. We offer evidence for the phenomenon of probability neglect, failing to distinguish between high and low-probability risks. Action bias is a likely result. “

In the short note I shared to start this post you can see that in play. There is the fear of the risk of an inappropriate relationship developing between a missionary and a mother of teenagers. That is a reaction to a “fearsome risk” (to quote the Harvard paper) or a “headline risk” to quote a popular risk response team’s discussion.

It is similar to how it might be if in response to the tiger attack I had dug a tiger pit or two in my yard. Of course, a tiger pit carries its own dangers.

In the example above, where an adult woman required three people to chaperone each other for a visit, there is the fearsome risk that some inappropriate relationship might develop if it is only two missionaries who are normalized to each other’s behavior. The more common risk is the risk of hurting feelings, diminishing relationships and all the fall-out that comes from infantilizing adult women. Those risks include reduced commitment, reduced involvement and reduced engagement.

Insurance companies often balance risks and it often takes the form of deep analysis and surprising recognition of the cost — and risk — of every type of risk avoidance. For example, it is obvious that if they drive slowly and if ambulances don’t use their sirens and lights, they get in fewer accidents. Of course that means that more people die on the way to a hospital where they could have been saved. Which risk do you avoid and which one is an acceptable cost?

While the number of headline missionary behaving badly stories is very small (though it does happen every-so-often), people feeling like they do not have a place in the LDS community is a much more common event. The avoidance of the one risk has a definite cost.

Questions for our readers:

  • What examples of “fearsome risks” vs. “likely to be encountered” risks have you noticed in your life or the life of friends?
  • Have you ever noticed someone overreacting to a potential risk?
  • How many people have you known who have become less engaged as a result of being infantilized?
  • Is there any risk avoidance that doesn’t have a cost?
  • What ways might you change things if one of your goals was to encourage women to be involved, treated as adults, and engaged in the modern church?
  • What other thoughts did this essay bring to mind?

Picture from Wikimedia Commons. For a link to the license, etc. click on the picture. Quote was used with permission from the author.