Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Risky business: how we interpret risk and odds

Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash


We have all pictured it.

That dreaded, implausible scenario where you find yourself on the end of a phone call with your GP who has rung about a few tests you did last week.

Except, rather than hearing words of reassurance, your doctor asks you to come in to discuss the results.

It is in that moment that you realise this might be the day you hear a life-changing diagnosis.

You have a feeling that you are about to be diagnosed with one of those serious, chronic conditions that people have been incessantly warning you about developing your whole life.

Something that could rock your world and change every plan you have ever had for how you want your life to turn out.

In the moments on your way into the GP and on your way home, you will have a decision to make. That is, how will you interpret the results and the odds that you are given?

Scenarios such as these make us stop and evaluate just how reliable our interpretation of risk is. This leads to the question of what influences our ability to evaluate risk and make decisions accordingly.


What influences our interpretation of risk?

Multiple factors influence our perception of risk.

One being our personal psychosocial orientation towards risk. Some people are more risk-averse, meaning they likely only take chances when they have (what they consider to be) solid odds. In comparison, others identify as more risk-taking and therefore more willing to take a loss if they have a chance of an attractive return.

A person’s risk tolerance is likely to change over time and fluctuate in different situations.

For example, in the field of medicine and pharmacology, what is considered to be an appropriate risk-benefit ratio of a drug changes depending on the severity of the condition, the existence of other treatments and the individual-specific likelihood of positive response.

Put into practice, it follows that patients are unwilling to tolerate major side effects of a medication taken to treat headaches, because the benefit gained from treating the headache may be viewed as minimal.

However, cancer patients for whom a drug could be the difference between life-or-death outcomes are more likely to tolerate severe, quality-of-life decreasing side-effects. Such as those seen from chemotherapy – which for example can indiscriminately target the turnover of new cells in the body, not simply tumour cells. As a result, the chemotherapy can cause many of the hallmark side effects typically associated with cancer such as fatigue, hair loss, frailty, loss of appetite, nausea etc. These deleterious effects are caused by the drugs rather than the disease itself. However, patients may be willing to risk such side effects if there is a chance that the treatment could help eradicate the cancer, or even stop its proliferation.

Another element determining risk perception is the nature of the risk itself. This includes aspects such as how severe the risk is, i.e. is it life-or-death? How much control can be asserted over the outcome? As well as the timing of the possible gain or loss.

A final critical component of an individual’s interpretation of risk is their own biases in interpreting the odds of the risk occurring. Some of the biases that come into play in assessing risk include:

  • Representativeness bias: this occurs when we judge the probability of an event occurring by comparing it to an existing prototype in our minds. For example,
  • Anchoring and adjustment: this phenomenon functions through an individual making an initial judgement based on an early piece of information. They may later adjust their judgement, but only minimally.
  • Availability bias: this involves interpreting risk based on immediately available examples for comparison that comes to mind and helps an individual make a judgement. However, examples of poor outcomes and severe consequences are more likely to come to mind.


Fear response

Most of us would likely think we would do averagely in terms of being able to evaluate risk. However, how the information is framed and the number of methods used to convey and compare the information can impact an individuals ability to define personal meaning from the information.

Some threats trigger an enhanced emotional response which can skew how dangerous we interpret them to be, says Gerd Gigerenzer, risk research at the University of Potsdam, Germany. He has dubbed them “dread risks“. These are ones that pose less of a risk to us than risks we are happy to take daily. However, several relatively rare instances may have occurred in quick succession and gained media attention, for example, fueling anxiety and a disproportionate fear response.

Gerd says that this type of fear response can influence our decisions and cause us to take actions that in fact, escalate our risk of injury or mortality. For example, statistics across the world have observed a decrease in rates of diagnosis of many chronic health conditions. Experts have put this down to public avoidance of hospitals due to unwanted exposure to Covid-19.

Data from the World Stroke Organization showed a 50-70 per cent median decrease in the number of hospital admissions for stroke symptoms recorded across 100 participating countries. In addition, there has been a wide circulation of media stories concerning the number of missed cancer diagnosis this year. An article published in The Lancet in June 2020 estimated that at that point in time, data reflected significant increased in the number of preventable cancer deaths in England as a result of diagnostic delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It predicted approximately 59,000 – 63000 total years of lost life across only four cancers (breast, colorectal, oesophageal and lung).


Strategies to better communicate and interpret risk

In the case of Covid-19 experts have made some recommendations as to how you can minimise anxiety surrounding your risk of contraction. These include:

  • Keep your perspective. Analyse whether statistics are given in absolute or relative values. Put those risk odds into perspective by comparing them to other values. Be cognizant of whether your emotions are amplifying your interpretation of these numbers.
  • Ensure the information informing your feelings and decisions about your risk come from reliable, qualified sources.
  • Seek professional mental health support if you find you are struggling or experiencing high levels of anxiety regarding risk exposure.



Useful Resources:

Do selfless people actually benefit in the long-run?


Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered whether do-gooders actually benefit from their do-gooding?

Is there such thing as good karma? Do altruism and generosity actually pay off in the end?

What can science tell us about these seemingly innate traits?


The puzzle of cooperation

Throughout history, social groups have collectively faced the evolutionary obstacle of aligning the disparate interests of individuals towards specific common goals.

The conundrum surrounding cooperation is that it yields great benefit for a group’s productivity, success and even survival. Helping to protect against selection pressures. However, it often comes at a greater personal cost to those who cooperate compared to those who do not. Cooperation at great personal sacrifice can also be detrimental to an individual’s capacity to compete within their group for hierarchical positions and status in social ranks such as wealth, power etc.

One potent and timely example would be our collective efforts to limit the transmission of Covid-19 in an effort to protect ourselves, and particularly the vulnerable within society.

When societal gain comes at such great personal cost, what drives us to be cooperative?


What drives us to be cooperative?

Studies have revealed that humans are more generous when we know we are being watched. A study of university students paying for drinks via an honesty box even revealed that people paid three times the amount when exposed to an image of eyes. Considered alongside other studies that have observed links between the possibility of reputational gain within a group and likelihood of engaging in charitable behaviours, the role of personal gain in prosocial behaviours is alluded to.

The question then becomes, what are the benefits to be gained from prosocial behaviours?


Benefits of prosocial behaviour

Despite the upfront personal cost, research suggests that prosocial behaviours -defined as behaviours aimed to benefit people other than oneself- can yield great personal benefit to individuals in the long run.

Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that prosocial behaviours can benefit the individuals who engage in them by helping them attract and access better partnerships within their social groups.

These researchers frame human interaction as a product of choice, whereby individuals can determine who they select as social partners. This choice creates a biological market for social partners. Within this market, individuals compete for access to cooperative partnerships and their market value is determined by the advantages they can offer to their potential partners.

According to this model, the benefit an individual can offer to another relies on both what the other can offer, as well as how willing they are to share these benefits. In this way, biological markets give individuals the power to select for desirable tendencies; those being pro-social behaviours that signify more generous partners.

The theory of “competitive altruism” frames pro-social behaviour as a form of reputation-building.  It predicts that individuals who can cultivate a reputation for generosity are themselves able to secure more cooperative partners from whom they receive more benefits than less generous individuals.

Biological markets help predict why we are drawn to associate with specific individuals. This has implications for our understanding of models of cooperation.


Should this inform our prosocial behaviours?

These models suggest that natural selection favours individuals who have access to the most resources, one important determinant of this is the people you choose to interact and form relationships with.

As the famous saying goes, you are a reflection of the five people you spend the most time with.

Perhaps it does follow that the more generous, empathetic and altruistically-minded you are, the more likely you will attract similarly-minded people.

However, there are an innumerable number of factors that influence how your life will pan out. Forcing yourself to act in a more prosocial manner may not be the best course of action for you.

Ultimately, you decide what is important to you in life. If being a stereotypical do-gooder isn’t it, then perhaps you will find greater enjoyment and fulfilment another way.

Besides, who is to say that you can’t be the maker of your own destiny. Rather than putting on an act just to attract a specific type of partner, perhaps it would be more valuable to invest your time into being successful in yourself and attract people who can add to the life you create.

No matter where you land on the spectrum of altruistic leniencies, perhaps this post will give you reason to pause and consider acting on the next opportunity you have to contribute positively to someone else.


Further Reading:

Not Quite Wet Enough

Why we should care about wetlands drying out

Satellite image of Okavango Delta, an inland wetland and World Heritage site. Image by European Space Agency via Wikicommons

You may not know much about wetlands, in fact you may have never even heard of them but they are absolutely vital to the health of our planet and by default the human race. Surrounding communities rely on wetlands to provide front-line defence against extreme weather and natural disasters. A wide array of animals and plants depend on the rich habitat for a suitable place to call home. Another role in this non-exhaustive list is the filtering and storage of water which is pretty key for survival.

Climate change is becoming increasingly visible as weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme across the globe. As droughts increase in frequency and severity the wetlands are getting, well… less wet. And we are only just beginning to understand the long-term damage caused by drying out the otherwise wet soil, which is not as minor as it sounds.


The importance of wetlands stems from the variety and sheer number of different living organisms present. To give a rough idea 40% of all species either live or breed in them! Maintaining biodiversity at this incredible level is vital if we wish to continue reaping the environmental, societal and economical benefits.

They are truly incredible ecosystems and carry out critical ecological processes which provide:

  • protection from storms, flooding and drought
  • improvement of water quality through removal of pollutants
  • food (e.g fish, rice, seaweed)
  • carbon storage

Wetlands also provide jobs and recreational opportunities as the stunning landscapes increase tourism. There is even an international ‘World Wetlands Day’ which highlights just how special they are!


Although droughts are not eternal, we now know that they are causing long-term damage to our precious wetlands. Animals, plants and other organisms all require specific conditions as just like us they are adapted to live with certain boundaries. If the temperature, pH, mineral content, oxygen levels or really anything changes too much… it’s game over.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide have found that droughts set off chain reactions which can cause long-term and irreversible changes in the soil. As the land dries, more and more water evaporates which increases soil exposure to oxygen. This is just one of many factors that mobilise a sequence of events which can completely alter the entire ecosystem! Some observed changes include soil and water acidification, cracking, compaction, increased sulfur content, salinity and metal mobilisation. As the scientists reviewed the biogeochemical changes they also bore witness to loss of crops, deteriorated water quality and devastating losses of biodiversity as organisms died. Lead author Dr Erinne Sterling hopes that by highlighting the effects of drought on wet soils, the study will aid future protection of these valuable ecosystems.

Make sure to mark February 2nd in your calendars and get active on social media for the next World Wetlands Day to help spread awareness! #KeepWetlands


If you would like to learn more or simply enjoy the beautiful scenery, be sure to check out the videos below—







Blue Carbon, a hidden gem for climate change mitigation

Mangroves photo created by lifeforstock –

I come from a landlocked country that is covered by forest on nearly 40% of its territory. This is why when I think of carbon sequestration, I picture mainly land forests. Little did I know before coming to Australia, that ocean ecosystems have a great potential for carbon sequestration. They can actually sequester more carbon than land forests!

Blue carbon refers to the carbon sequestered by coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes and sea grass. These ecosystems are important for climate change mitigation because they store carbon in two ways: in their living biomass and in the soil of the ocean floor.

One of the fascinating perks of Blue Carbon is that these ecosystems are distributed along all coastal areas in the world (except for the Arctic and Antarctica). These ecosystems can store up to 210 grams of carbon  per square meter per year. They also provide a variety of ecosystem services from habitat for other species to prevention of eutrophication (excess of nutrients that results in excessive algae growth).

How can they mitigate climate change?

They can sequester and store carbon. The way these ecosystems sequester carbon is through photosynthesis. They absorb CO2 to transform it into organic carbon and store it in plant tissue. When these tissues decompose, they sink into the ocean floor. These plant residues then can be stored in the ocean floor for long periods of time. This is another perk of Blue Carbon: not only it sequesters large amounts of Carbon, it can store this carbon for a long time.

The other way these ecosystems store carbon is through their canopies. The upper canopies can capture and filter particles that are present in the water, and then store them in the ocean’s floor. This process does not sequester new carbon, it only stores carbon transported from other ecosystems, this is called allochthonous carbon.

What about carbon emissions?

While they have a great potential for carbon sequestration, there is also a downside. Mangrove forests are one of the fastest disappearing ecosystems on the planet. The degradation of these ecosystems releases large amounts of Carbon into the atmosphere. The good news is that there are numerous projects that focus on mangroves conservation or restoration and combine it with climate change mitigation goals.

A successful example of these projects in the “Mikoko Pamoja” project from Kenya. This project combines a voluntary carbon credits market with mangroves restoration. The Mikoko Pamoja project succeeded in conserving 117 hectares of mangrove forest and storing 9880 metric tons of CO2. As it is a community led project, it also benefited 498 Kenyan households. Even though this is a small scale project, it shows the potential of success for community-led Blue Carbon projects.

So, the next time you think about climate change mitigation and carbon sequestration, remember we have more options than only land forests. Blue Carbon is the hidden gem of climate change mitigation!


Additional readings

Keys to successful blue carbon projects: Lessons learned from global case studies

Hidden forests, the role of vegetated coastal habitats in the ocean carbon budget

Bat living in “peace” with killer viruses

Throwing back to the earliest outbreak of COVID-19, everyone in China was shocked and threatened by the rumor: the coronavirus came from the bats traded in Wuhan Wildlife Market. I could still remember my grandma’s terrified face seeing a bat behind the curtain while she’s cleaning our old house at countryside. But I also questioned: why the bat could……

Although bat is no longer recognized as the culprit of COVID-19, it is still a notorious animal accounting for reservoir of more than 66 isolated viruses. The bat-borne viruses can infect both human and livestock.

Amongst those, Ebolavirus, Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-CoV and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV are the most disastrous ones and they’ve already killed thousands of people.

So why are bats so special that can cohabit with numerous killer viruses?

The answer is the evolved innate immunity in bats.

Innate immune response is basically universal in mammal due to conserved receptors on the mammalian cells that recognizes foreign molecules on pathogens, in this case, virus. This recognition will trigger inflammation at the infection site. Inflammation always comes with cell death.

However, when there is good there is bad. Although inflammation can facilitate clearance of virus, its activities can result in tissue damage nearby the infection. This is because the immune system is urging to kill the infected cells and virus and produce a large amount of antiviral and pro-inflammatory chemical called cytokines.

In most cases of viral infection in mammals, the viruses are too tricky to be cleared and cytokine activity may accidentally kill the normal cells near infection. This is why many severe viral diseases associate with organ failure.

Bats use the similar mechanism but have evolved special antiviral responses to stop virus but limit the inflammatory activities that harm themselves.

For example, in response to an RNA virus infection in bat cells. It turns out that, different from human cells, after initial activation of inflammation, a bat protein called c-Rel in the infected cell will inhibit the exaggerated activation of pro-inflammatory cytokines hence reduce unnecessary inflammation and tissue damages.

Moreover, bat flight gives them higher body temperature around 40 degree Celsius and higher metabolic rate respectively. This is like a natural fever that is lasting without any damage to the body. It increases efficiency of the immune response to slow down the viral propagation without tissue damage.


Although viruses reside peacefully in bats, they can overwhelm us once transmitted to us.

The disease caused by pathogen passed from animals to human are called zoonosis. The role of bats in transmitting viral diseases across species is not novel as they were well recognized as reservoir hosts of rabies virus.

However, this reservoir was underestimated until the disaster of SARS epidemic. Living in the outbreak province of Guangdong, the memory of such deadly infection is indelible. In 2003, SARS influenced 26 countries and resulted in 8000 cases in a poorly globalized world.


The emerging bat viruses foreshadow the detrimental effect of increasing human activities in these days: wildlife trading, commercial exploitation of forests and global climate changes……

The relationships in nature are connective and interactive so any interruption might lead to the unexpectable result.

If we cannot maintain the peace between the wildlife and us, there is no way for us to peacefully deal with the zoonosis.




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