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The Psychology of Risk-Taking

Man sky diving
 

We all know an adrenaline junkie: the friend who jumps out of airplanes for fun, the sibling who spends her time traveling to war-ravaged countries, or the co-worker who spends her weekends speeding on a motorcycle. Adrenaline rushes are readily available at just about every turn. A number of factors can affect whether a person ends up a risk taker or a quiet homebody, but there’s evidence that a little risk-taking now and again is good for almost everyone.

Effects on the Brain
Risk-taking causes real changes in the brain, which might account for why risk-takers quickly seem to become adrenaline addicts. Major risks release adrenaline, which can lead to a quick rush, and dopamine, which causes intense feelings of pleasure. While these chemicals contribute to a powerful high in most people, the feelings can be especially addictive to people who are struggling with feelings of sadness or depression. Over time, risk-taking can function much like a drug. Risk-takers may need bigger risks to get the same rush, and mundane daily activities can start to seem boring and painful.

Personality
Personality plays a major role in an individual’s propensity for risk-taking behavior. While it might seem like those who worry excessively don’t make for ideal risk-takers, some studies indicate that people who score high on neuroticism – a combination of anxiety, moodiness, and worry – are more likely to become risk-takers. The data is not conclusive, though, and some studies have found that risk-takers actually score lower on measures of neuroticism than the general population.

Personality can also affect the kinds of risks a person is willing to take. The dedicated smoker might be terrified of heights, driving, or illness, without ever recognizing that smoking is a risky behavior. Some adrenaline junkies have a preferred risk-taking behavior, and this could be correlated with personality. People who love novelty, for example, might travel to dangerous locations, while people who are highly physical might get their adrenaline rush from rock climbing or mountain biking.

Culture and Peers
Cultural influences play a huge role in whether or not people are willing to take risks. As travel – particularly to remote locations – has become a part of the educational path of middle class students, more and more students are willing to travel to potentially risky locations. Peer pressure plays a huge role in risk-taking, and study after study has shown that people are more likely to take risks in a group setting.

Benefits of Risk-Taking
While some risky behaviors might not be worth their potential consequences, risk-taking in small doses is almost universally beneficial for your brain and mental health. Novel experiences can help to ward off depression and reinvigorate a stale relationship. Risk-taking is often a necessary prerequisite for starting a new business or launching a new career, and the excitement associated with uncertainty can be a powerful antidote to boredom and even depression. Because dopamine produces a natural high, risk-taking behaviors can help you get a positive mood and a new perspective without the risks associated with drug use.

References:

  1. Adrenaline rush: The science of risk. (n.d.). Museum of Science, Boston. Retrieved from http://www.mos.org/imax/adrenaline-rush
  2. Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer Influence on Risk Taking, Risk Preference, and Risky Decision Making in Adolescence and Adulthood: An Experimental Study. Developmental Psychology, 41(4), 625-635. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.41.4.625
  3. Park, A. (n.d.). Why we take risks — it’s the dopamine. Time. Retrieved December 30, 2008, from http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1869106,00.html

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Comments
  • Avery May 7th, 2013 at 11:27 AM #1

    I would LOVE to know the science behind what creates a risk taker and what creates a child who is cautious to afault. I have two children and they are like night and day, one who will try anything once just to see what happens, and one who will not try any little thing. How did that happen? I think that I have parented them both the same but if you did not know that they were siblings, you sure wouldn’t guess it based on their behavior patterns! Although my risky one tends to give me a little more heart failure, I can see how his little adventures will probably serve him pretty well in life, if he survices his numerous tumbles and falls. I see him as being areal go getter and not letting fear of failure stop him from taking a chance, while I sort of hope my other becomes a little more like that. I just think that there can be more success found among those willing to take a chance every now and then versus always choosing the dociale path.

  • rhea May 7th, 2013 at 12:11 PM #2

    some friends r adrenaline junkies yes but they have had their falls too.not easy to do things that u see someone else do.they may have spent years practicing it.so while u may want to replicate n derive benefits of risk takin be cautious too.n dont hurt urself kids!

  • Cullen May 7th, 2013 at 12:47 PM #3

    OH NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!!! I will not now, nor will I ever be a risk taker. No jumping out of airplanes for me, thank you VERY much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Lizzie May 7th, 2013 at 12:49 PM #4

    My brother did the whole sky diving thing when he was in college. He is an interesting study. He was diagnosed with ADHD back in the mid-70′s when no one had ever heard of it. He was definitely impulsive and always loved thrill seeking activities. He would get in sooooo much trouble as a teenager. Bless him.

  • Johnny May 7th, 2013 at 12:51 PM #5

    Yeah this can def. be addictive. I was so scared the first time I did motorbike racing but then i just got to where i did it more and more and the courses had to be harder and the jumps higher in order for me to feel that rush. then i broke my arm and leg and couldn’t ride anymore so that was that but i can still say that yeah i was addicted to it.

  • GREG P May 7th, 2013 at 12:53 PM #6

    MY GRANDPA WAS A RISK TAKER EVEN WHEN HE WAS 90 YEARS OLD. THE DOCTORS TOLD HIM AFTER HE HAD A HEART ATTACK THAT HE COULDN’T CHOP WOOD WITH HIS AX ANYMORE. SO HE USED THE CHAIN SAW INSTEAD. LOVED THAT MAN!!

  • Mom'sGotIt May 7th, 2013 at 12:56 PM #7

    Risk-taking is definitely beneficial to our armed forces and our security as a nation. Can you imagine a country made of people afraid to take risks? We’d get run right over. Personally, I am grateful that there are risk takers willing to go to Afghanistan and fight for our freedom. People feel so strongly about fighting for our country that we don’t even have to have a draft anymore. That says a whole lot for all the risk takers out there!

  • stephen y May 8th, 2013 at 3:53 AM #8

    I relate to the point that this almost becomes like a druggie needing to get his fix.
    Many of those seeking that adrenaline rush are off doing one thing that is unsafe, and then they survive that and then they are off to find the next adventure.
    In some ways I kind of envy these people. . .
    And then in other ways, I kind of look at them tand think about how stupid they are!

  • C Bresnan May 8th, 2013 at 11:50 PM #9

    Risk taking as a growth outlet? Definitely. I remember being an introvert in school and being unable to freely mingle with people. Then the rock climbing started and things turned around. it could be the rush or it could be the activity but sport and risk taking are definitely things that will not only attract people to you and build your confidence but also bring in a sense of “I’m good” in you.

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