No lives are completely void of risk taking; however, there is a vast continuum of risk seeking behaviors. Risky behaviors are those that expose us to harm or danger in pursuit of what is perceived as a positive outcome.
People pursue risk taking behaviors because of the benefit they think will come from the behavior. They are willing to take a chance, risking potential harm, because of the appeal of the reward.
There is a range of risk taking, as riding in a boat, jumping off a high dive and doing heroin are clearly not the same. These behaviors present varying levels of risk and potential impact. There is a healthy component to risk taking, as it can lead us to trying new things, learning, changing, and growing. However, when taken to an extreme, risky behaviors are unhealthy and maladaptive.
Risk taking is also binary, as people are not categorically “risk averse” or “risk seeking.” People are a complex mix of being more willing to take risks in certain situations and not others. Some thrill seekers will be drawn to cliff jumping, yet not be tempted to take a social risk if they are reserved inter-personally. Some are drawn to financial risk, while others engage in physical risk.
Elke Weber is a Columbia University psychologist who developed the model of “domain-specific risk propensity,” suggesting that people have varying risk propensity in five categories: financial, health/safety, recreational, ethical, and social. Weber suggests that people have innate risk thresholds in each area partially depending on the individual’s values. Generally, how much one thinks they will benefit from a risky behavior is correlated to the likelihood they will engage in it. If a person does not value the adrenaline rush that follows skydiving, there is a low likelihood they will take the chance of jumping out of an airplane.
People can feel the temptation of pushing outside the limits of safety in the pursuit of a positive experience. Many take chances that put them in danger, even for a momentary sense of pleasure. Risk taking can lead to incredible success or incredible damage.
What is the draw?
Risk taking raises adrenaline and is exciting. Taking risks can provide a relief from current life demands and we may even justify the behaviors as an indulgence or a reward we deserve.
Also, people who engage in risky behavior often don’t consider what they are doing as risky, or they can underestimate the potential hazards. Angela Bryan, a researcher at the University of Colorado suggests that we implicitly assume negative outcomes will not happen to us. This is similar to the phrase, “I never thought it would happen to me.” It is uncommon for people to express extreme concern about daily activities such as getting in their vehicle to go to work. Yet, there are risks to driving, especially in crowded or rush hour traffic. She identifies this trend as being adaptive, or we could be overwhelmed with fear and unable to leave the house.
Risk taking and addiction:
Why take a risk even if the consequence is certainly harmful? While using drugs may provide a short term high, the negative consequences logically outweigh the immediate relief. The stimulus and reward cycle resulting from engaging in some risky behaviors can become addictive, despite the adverse effects. Some can become addicted to the euphoric impact of behaviors like having sex or gambling. When people lose impulse control over these behaviors despite experiencing negative personal consequences, the risky behaviors have become unmanageable.
Adolescence is a time when risky behavior is often increased. Some view this as a natural time for exploration and experimentation as teens are developing their own identities. Neurological brain development occurs, as the prefrontal cortex undergoes advancement during these critical years. The prefrontal cortex houses what is referred to as executive functioning: logical problem solving, decision making, planning, and thinking ahead of potential ramifications. The amygdala, often referred to as the reptilian brain, is associated with instinctive behaviors and reactions. It is part of the limbic system which is also the area that gets fired up when we are faced with perceived danger, leading to a “fight or flight” response. Since the prefrontal cortex is still undergoing development, teens can over rely on the amygdala, which can increase impulsivity.
While most people become less risk seeking as they age and mature, there are some who continue to engage in risky behaviors and demonstrate these patterns throughout their lives.
Researcher Terri Moffitt suggests that there is evidence for a risk taking personality. Studies indicate that on personality tests, “risk takers score higher on impulsivity and lower on self control and conscientiousness.” They also tend to score high on negative emotions such as anger and jealousy.
Risk taking may be an interaction of biological, chemical, genetic, social, or psychological mechanisms involved. Regardless of the source, if risk taking behaviors become excessive, putting one in danger consistently, an intervention may be required.
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.