Risk Taking

Are you a risk taker? Whether it's bungee jumping, singing karaoke or getting married - it all comes under the heading of risk taking. Guy Grenier came by to talk about what it means when we take risks - and when we don't.

What is risk taking?
In its simplest form risking taking is a disregard for negative consequences or a skewed focus on positive outcomes. Typically we think of those who engage in extreme sports as risk-takers but there is risk-taking all around us. Smoking, drinking and driving, not attending to your health, not attending to your financial well-being, not paying attention to the health of your relationship are all forms of behaviour that can be considered as risky.

It actually refers to a variety of things - sensation seeking, being sociable (Hi my name's X - what do you think of me so far), aggression (I'm bigger than you so I'm going to beat the crap out of you). It involves a number of different things that we can sum them up as a personality traits.

Does everyone take risks?
Risk taking has been critically important for the survival of our species but it's not equally divided throughout the species. We all have the capacity to take risks. About 67 percent of us are in middle ground of risk taking while there's extreme and low risk takers at either end.

Are there problems if we don't take risks?
Yes, risk taking is about new experiences, and pushing boundaries. Traditionally when psychologists study child development one thing we access is how willing a toddler is to move away from its mother - to begin with the toddler stays on the mother's lap then takes a step away and comes back until it decides to explore further and further away - that's a manifestation of risk taking - how far can I go without being unsafe?

Some adults will create a predictable, safe world - they'll try a new brand of rice but they're not willing to take on bigger challenges - change jobs, try new relationships, so they don't have the satisfaction of acquiring new experiences/taking on challenges. Sometimes risk taking may have been beaten out of them - they risked love and lost the relationship, or they've lost a job or money.

But people should bear in mind that every relationship at every moment in your life is risk taking - you can't control other's actions so people get into a false sense of security, they can start taking their partners for granted only to find that the partner has decided to move on.

What's happening to our bodies when we're taking risks?
Psychologists continue to explore the effects of testosterone and adrenaline as well as looking at the genetic makeup of risk taking. Testosterone has a consistent but small relationship to risk taking - with young men in particular. Some risk-taking has to do with the thrill of the adrenaline rush and some is associated with other physical capabilities.

So when we take a risk there's an adrenaline surge that occurs with a psychological feeling that "I've just done something - had a new sensation - I can add that to my memory - to my sensations."

Are there benefits to risk-taking?
Absolutely. Humans are now on every continent of the planet - we live in every environment; discovered new things, go places we wouldn't go if we were scared.

When we find new experiences we make new connections - which means new knowledge.

But people can get stuck in ruts. Henry David Thoreau (American writer and philosopher: 1817-1862) said it well: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." People talk themselves into an emotional corner -an experiential corner. It's psychologists like me who try to get them out of these ruts.

When people take risks and find out that they were able to push limits they wonder what other limits they can experience. If we use this sensation-need wisely its typically it brings about greater self-actualization.

Risk taking obviously isn't just about taking physical risks it can be about mental risks as well e.g. stand-up comedian. Relationships are an on-going experience in risk management and when we take a partner for granted we risk losing them.

Finances involve risk-taking. People who have lost millions of dollars in the stock market were involved in risk taking. When people put money into mutual funds they don't think of it as risk taking but many people don't understand how mutual funds work and we've now learned that they're very risky.

One of the riskiest behaviours is reckless driving. That's one of those great equalizers. Smoking is an incredibly risky behaviour; so are not looking after your health, excessive drinking, and gambling.

What's going on with the extreme sports types?
It's not just one thing driving this behaviour. When you talk to people who do free climbing or snowboard off cliffs you find that they go to great lengths to be safe. They've done training; have the right safety equipment. What they do looks insane to mere mortals but they're not necessarily different from other people. They started snow boarding, became good at it and thought, "what else can I do - go backwards, do a flip?" - there's a great joy in doing a complicated thing well. For those of us sitting on a couch, who haven't put in the hours of training, we think, "you must be nuts?" And their answer is, "No, I've been doing this for years." Typically these things are planned out - they're pushing the boundaries but it's a legitimate way of proving themselves. They also might have been brought up in an athletic culture.

What about people who ski off trail, or go ice fishing when they know it's dangerous? They seem to be lacking common sense.
Here there's a sense of entitlement and invulnerability. These people think, "bad things don't happen to me." Until they have a negative experience they didn't even realize there was a risk.
Kids take risks - teens particularly. There's a testosterone thing going on with teen boys - they've not had a whole lot of life experience to marry to their novelty seeking, they're physically in better shape then they will be for the rest of their in lives and many of them haven't experienced a major set-back. Also, a lot of boys lack role models.

What else should we think about when it comes to risk taking?
Risk taking is neither right nor wrong, it simply is the heightened tolerance for ambiguity that some people are comfortable with. The more critical issues is finding someone who shares your perception of risk rather than finding yourself in a relationship where there are constant disagreements about whether a particular risk is reasonable or unreasonable.

In a relationship people should try to match themselves. If you're a risk taker and your partner isn't that can impact on things like the kids, money, and the relationship itself.

Thanks to the Toronto Climbing Academy:

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