The erosion of automatic risk awareness

This is the unedited version of an article published by Thompson Reuters Accellus in October 2017.

This article examines the consequences of the view that it's always someone else's responsibility to keep us from harm and how it undermines financial crime awareness and related controls.

It is difficult to determine when we, as a society, came to the common view that risk management is a matter of collective, not individual responsibility and that, because it is collective, we can hand it off to the group feeling safe in the false certainty that someone else will take care of it.

Today, millions of people place their trust in predictive text, or auto-correct, on a range of electronic devices. In doing so, they abrogate responsibility not to a machine but to an unknown person who designed the software that controls that machine.

Yet, perhaps, we can trace our willingness to surrender our obligations to ourselves and those who rely on us to what was, on the face of it, a movement of well-meaning, even evangelical, determination to protect first children and then everyone from harm.

It raises a fundamental question: if we are conditioned from an early age to accept that someone else will take steps to keep us from harm, when (if at all) do we learn to recognise and manage risk?

Those now approaching retirement age (or that which would be retirement age if pensions schemes were not either state-sponsored Ponzi schemes or funds that have failed to reach expected pots due to several economic crises during their working lives) will remember that childhood was full of rough and tumble.

Playgrounds had swings and roundabouts and see-saws from which children fell onto hard concrete. It hurt. Mothers would mumble something about their "brave little soldier" and encourage the child to stop crying and go back to play. Often that would be bolstered with "what will your friends think if you're such a cry-baby?"

We, for this writer is of that generation, still bear the scars of falls onto hard surfaces or gravel. X-rays of the fingers that today dance over a keyboard will show a history of breaks caused by doing stupid things or games played in the Scout Hut. These injuries were so frequent that running repairs were performed (by the same hands) using a lollipop stick and Sellotape with the added bonus that the iced lolly had to be eaten first: a benefit that a trip to the casualty department of the hospital did not bring.

As a generation, we were post WWII and we were brought up to not make a fuss. Our aunts and uncles were children of the inter-war years and their vocabulary was littered with quasi-sympathetic phrases such as the sarcastic "there, there, then" said as if speaking to a baby in a pram or "come on.. there's worse things happen at sea."

In short, we were not coddled and we suffered the consequences of our own stupidity. That is not to say that we were not given boundaries for we were. Often, those boundaries would be drawn at a point that our parents and teachers knew were well inside the point where things would become dangerous, knowing that we would test them and overstep the boundaries to see what happened and do so in relative safety.

What happened was, usually, something was damaged. It might be knees or the heel of a hand or it might be a pair of school shoes. Policy was to keep children in above-the-knee clothing right through junior school (that's until age 11) so that parents did not suffer the cost of repeatedly repairing or replacing trousers torn in "playtime" on a tarmac all purpose surface used for yard cricket, football, hockey, tennis, running and generally mucking about.

Somewhere between that and our own children reaching a similar stage in life we found that public parks became places of experimentation for those who felt that children must be prevented from hurting themselves. We saw wood-chips then spongy surfaces appear under swings, around roundabouts and everywhere that children played. In schools, games on hard surfaces became almost obsolete. In Scouts, games such as British Bulldog (one broken finger - it got caught in someone's sock) and spider football (a different finger broken when I collapsed from the spider position and squashed my own hand) were quietly shelved.

As a result, children (who are grown-ups-in-waiting) did not learn not to hurt themselves; instead, they learned that hurting themselves was unlikely.

The movement to protect children at all costs took on a life of its own. At the same time, a movement to fail to impose boundaries and behavioural conditions on children created a world of fundamental indiscipline, a world that now, a further generation on, is leading to polarisation as half of society says children should behave in a socially acceptable way and the other half says they should be allowed to do precisely as they like.

We now see an increasing number of businesses establishing child-free zones or, even, child-free businesses. They say "our customers deserve peace and quiet," the free-radical-parenting brigade say "our children should be able to express themselves at all times," conveniently, or perversely ignoring the concept of being a good neighbour.

We found that psychological punishment replaced the immediacy of the short-sharp tap to the bottom or the back of the legs. It is true that corporal punishment was, in the hands of some, woefully improper and often performed with a relish that one has to wonder if teachers took some form of gratification out of delivering a spanking and that, as with beating, had to be acted against. But. Is it better to take a naughty child home, then several hours later imprison him in his room until he expresses remorse or, even, to make a young child sit on "the naughty step" as punishment for behaviour that is so divorced from the penalty that the child has difficulty in relating the two rather than to immediately slap his bottom or the backs of his legs once or at most twice?

We have, in this way, created a world in which children move into their teenage years, the years where they are genetically programmed to explore and challenge, without the prior decade of understanding the relationships between risk and pain and between bad behaviour and immediate, effective punishment.

Of course, this analysis will be regarded as heresy by many. They will say that teenagers have always rebelled, that it is part of their purpose. They are right: the teenage years are the years where personalities develop alongside physical attributes and the attitudes that go with them. It is the teenage years where we see the bad, for example bullying, and the good, for example developing an interest in a wide range of things from skills to arts, from labour to intellectualism and, ideally, everyone doing at least a bit of all things, learning about the world, each other and themselves in equal measure.

And yet, education systems have, in the past three decades, militated against that teenage development. A sausage machine mentality has forced teenagers into a series of intellectual straight-jackets where thinking is almost regarded as deviant. Good pupils get good marks for repeating and reciting; inventive pupils get sent to the headmaster (who delivers the psychological weapon of suspension), they fail or both. Pupils who don't fit are regarded as disruptive and punished.

If those pupils were cultivated, they would probably not turn into petty criminals as so many do, constantly looking for ways to challenge authority. It is amongst this group that we find most white collar criminals: they are generally bright and generally inventive and, most of all, generally bored. That spills over into an attitude of "I'll show them" and they turn to fraud, embezzlement, even computer crime.

If their talents were harnessed, they would be ideal risk managers: natural white hats, as some would say.

They are not afraid of failing because when they have failed, there has been no immediate consequence where the child says "ouch."

Some people spend their lives looking for something exciting to do.

While somewhat negatively termed "adrenaline junkies" they are, mostly, far from it. Mostly, they just want to avoid mediocrity. They want their minds to fly free but that has been trained out of them. So they look for physical challenges.

Again, the generation now approaching retirement did not have to look far: left knee permanently damaged from a cycle grass track mishap aged 10, right knee ditto when a ski dug into soft-snow and the lower leg didn't turn. Left collarbone broken because if skiing on soft snow caused harm, let's do black runs on early morning ice (30 metre fall on hard ice - that hurt), both knees damaged by playing volleyball on a concrete, tiled court, both knees and left wrist harmed from squash (when you wear glasses and use an expensive racket, your left hand becomes a shock absorber when you are running into the wall). And that's just the early years: as life goes on, there are more and more ways to create injury: and if it's done in the name of sport, it's not called self-harm and no one sends you to a shrink. Crashing a racing go-kart, over and over again, really does nothing good for the neck or, unsurprisingly, the knees because, with no seat belts, you brace your legs, and downhill cross-country cycling carries a range of risks (too many to list), so does shale running (cuts and bruises are normal) and hanging off the side of a vintage Fastnet racing yacht racing in stormy seas and discovering that your harness had fallen off.

OK, maybe I'm an adrenaline junkie after all.

Yet, ultimately, the biggest damage of all is when you stop doing these things and your body suddenly doesn't know how to handle being sedentary.

Growing roses might result in scratches and cuts but it's not the same as jumping down the stairs to see if you can land safely at the bottom and, for each success, going one step further until a parent finds out what you are doing and has an entirely justifiable hissy fit because what you are jumping towards isn't a wall (that would be bad) but a floor to ceiling window (which would be messy).

If that's you (as it was me), then you are, probably, a natural risk manager: you know that there are risks, you assess them and you work out the consequences - and then you do them anyway.

But for most people, all of that is alien. They live in a a world where someone has already developed processes that remove as much risk as possible, where machines supposedly assess risk and prevent adverse conduct and the consequences that flow. They live in a world where their biggest risk is someone sneezing on them in the Tube and they simply do not think to be aware of everything around them and constantly think "what could go wrong and am I prepared to deal with it?"

In their world, often, the most exciting part of the early part of the day is if their train is on time, as they spend their lives as practitioners of the Reginald Perrin school of commuting.

We don't remember telephone numbers but the 1980s LFS (Lost Filofax Syndrome) which kept various talking therapy practitioners busy has not been superseded by Lost Phone Syndrome, even for the millions that don't back up their data despite the ease of doing so. And yet we have handed over so much of our lives to the little boxes that are now our window on the world, our primary means of communication and the repository of so much personal information and, of course, history.

We have not only become blind to the possibility of risk, we don't even care when it happens. When things go wrong, staff in shops, at check-in counters and people in ordinary lives simply shrug and ignore it

But it's not the same as mummy's little soldier: it's more "so what? Who gives a fig?"

The irony is that almost all those people do but if they stand up, they might be regarded as disruptive and most people want a quiet life. What started as protection for children has, it turns out, become detrimental to a society that is, in theory, self-policing but subject to boundaries set by Regulations.

Ordinary people either don't see risk at all or, if they do, they assume that someone else is taking care of it so they don't need to bother. That is the complete antithesis of the duties placed on people by laws and regulations designed to detect and deter financial crimes such as money laundering, bribery and terrorist financing.

In many cases, they don't see because they aren't looking and even if they do see, they believe they are protected by a process under which the nebulous "they" will take care of it or, just as they use a spell-check, they assume that somewhere some tech will deal with it.

No one thought that putting wood chips or spongy surfaces in a children's playground 30 years ago would lead to fines of thousands of millions of dollars for banks because staff are, simply, not paying attention to the risks.

As unintended consequences go, that's enormous.