Why Do We Say “An Abundance of Caution” Instead of Risk Management?

I keep hearing this phrase in the news: “Out of an abundance of caution…” Then the newscaster explains certain actions.

Why not just talk about risk management? What’s wrong with discussing risk?

Here’s my theory: the words “abundance of caution,” means all of these things:

  • We think there’s a potential problem, but you don’t have to worry your pretty little head about it.
  • There might be a problem, but we’re taking care of it.
  • Somebody thinks there’s a problem, so to placate them, we’ll do this action.

I hear “someone else will take care of this. You don’t have to worry.” And that feels very paternal or placating to me.

Too often, I hear “abundance of caution” as a way to placate me out of my risk assessment and management.

Which just pisses me off. (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

But I think there’s something more here. As a society, we don’t respect the idea of risk management in our lives and our work. I’m not sure why, because we assess and manage risk all the time.

We Use Risk Management for Risks We Can Control

Risk management is how we identify and manage what could go wrong. When we leave a little extra time to drive somewhere—that’s a form of risk management. I know that my time to drive into downtown Boston depends on the time of day and the route I take. I manage risk by looking at the traffic in advance, choosing my route, and leaving a little extra time in advance.

So far, I’ve been on time.

Since I have BFMs (Beloved Family Members) with difficult conditions, I’ve gotten all my vaccines (all of them, not just Covid). I also wear a mask in public in many places. I don’t want to share malevolent viruses with those BFMs. While the risk to me is now minimal, their risk remains high.

So far, so good.

Everything we do to prepare in advance for some time or event is a form of risk management. I probably do more risk management than many of you, but that’s because my vertigo challenges any last-minute preparation for anything.

But these risks are all risks I can control. I think there’s a difference between those risks and the “abundance of caution” risks.

“Abundance of Caution” Risks Are Often Out of Our Control

When the news talks about “abundance of caution” risks, they often discuss societal or large-scale risks that no one person can control.

Since we have no control, how can we react in a congruent way? Sometimes, that’s very difficult.

Some people find it easier to react when they can assume someone else is managing those risks. That doesn’t work for me (see the pisses me off comment), but it does work for many other people.

For out-of-your-control risks, what wording do you prefer? Do you prefer “abundance of caution” and know someone is doing risk management behind the scenes? Or do you prefer “risk management” even if your actions don’t control those risks?

I think that’s the real issue. Not the placating, but how we react to risks out of our control.

We all use risk management and our risk assessments differ from each other. I don’t want a paternal approach to risk management—I prefer to do what I can, for me and for larger risks. (Yes, I prefer action to passivity. You are not surprised.)

In the meantime, when you hear “abundance of caution,” realize they’re talking about risk management. Maybe you, too, can do what you can. If that fits for you.

That’s the question of the week: Why do we say “an abundance of caution” instead of risk management?

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