The pendulum effect: How time and memory impact the application of risk management

Humans have certain tendencies when it comes to remembering details of events when time has had a chance to distort the memory of those events. Some call it bias, some call it optimism or pessimism. How do these distortions impact our capacity to conduct risk management?

Ever since I got involved in risk management, I noticed that stakeholders sometimes have a distorted view of certain risks which they carry with them from project to project. This can be based on their lack of risk knowledge, but it is most often due to the fact that they have experienced something similar in the past. I have attempted to define this in the past, and it was not until about six years ago that I finally gave this my own term: the pendulum effect. In the following article, I will attempt to explain what and how the pendulum effect impacts our capacity to do risk management with a view of trying to minimize or at least be aware of this factor when it comes to our risk management work.

First, what is a pendulum? Pendulums have been used in science to show how impact produces synergies which will propel the impacted body in predictable or unpredictable ways. “This is usually in the form of a weight hung from a point so as to swing freely back and forth under the action of gravity” (Pendulum, Merriam-Webster dictionary). The best example of a pendulum often sits in an office to relieve stress. Look around, you can probably spot one nearby. They have also been used by magicians to mesmerize their audience which is another effect that we will discuss.

It is actually by looking at one of these in action that I was surprised to realize that we look at risks in much the same way and movement through time and memory after the impact modifies our perception when it comes to potential future impacts.

The best way to explain the pendulum effect is to show it in action. In January 1998, my daughter turned two years old, and we were waiting for my parents to come from Montreal to Toronto for her birthday. They could not make it that year not because of the tragic clown we had hired but because one of the worst ice storms that ever hit Montreal and part of the Eastern section of the US and Canada, devastated everyone leaving more than 59 people dead and millions of damages in infrastructure. I remember the military being called in to get people to leave their homes and take shelter. Electrical power supply towers looked as if they had been stepped on by some angry giant, leaving piles of rubbles and a tangled mess of wires in fields all across the province. My own father who had worked for more than 30 years for Hydro-Quebec (Quebec’s electricity generator and provider) could hardly keep up with the needs of his generator, and wood burning stove while ensuring the roof would not cave in from the weight of the ice. He was actually asked to go back to work for a short period to assist in the effort to bring the supply chain back up and running.

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