Taking Risks

In news stories and psychology journals, risk tends to get a bad rap. Risky mortgages, risky relationships, risky behaviors — you might think the world would be better off if we could all play it safe. But risk has another side. Whether we think about it or not, we all take chances every day, and some of those gambles turn out to have huge payoffs.

After decades of looking at risk-taking as some sort of illness, psychologists are starting to consider its positive side. Taking the right risks at the right time can make for a happier, more satisfying life, says psychologist Daniel Kruger, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“People who constantly try to avoid risk don’t get to experience as much in their lives,” Kruger says. Playing it safe can also be an exercise in futility. “If you try to isolate yourself from one type of risk,” he says, “you’ll find another. You can lock yourself in your house all day because you’re afraid of crime and then have a heart attack from lack of exercise.”

Risky business

Drug abuse, drinking and driving, unprotected sex with multiple partners, robbing banks — some risks can send a person to the hospital, prison, or worse. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that so many mental health professionals have treated risky behavior like a disease in need of a cure. “Psychologists have focused on the negative side of risk,” Kruger says. “It’s their job to help people in bad situations. And there has been a lot of government funding to address risky behavior.”

But as Kruger and colleagues described in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior in March 2009, taking chances is also a fundamental part of human nature. Way back in our hunting and gathering days, survival was a risky business. Whether they were driving off large predators to protect the game they’d bagged or preparing for battle with other tribes, our ancestors constantly had to put their safety on the line. We have many of those same instincts today, Kruger says. The challenge for all of us is to put those risk-taking and thrill-seeking tendencies to good use without harming ourselves or others.

History is full of risk takers. In fact, you could say that risk takers are the ones who get to make history. Galileo risked his life and freedom when he claimed that the earth orbited the sun. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence knew that he could be hanged for treason. Lewis and Clark headed up the Missouri River without much clue about the vast land ahead of them. (Jefferson hoped they’d find living mammoths.) And every immigrant who boarded a crowded ship for the New World essentially gambled everything for a better life.

Not all risks are matters of life and death: Francis Ford Coppola once mortgaged his house to help pay for a movie he was directing, Apocalypse Now. Oprah Winfrey took a big risk when she left a comfortable news job in Baltimore to host an obscure and rarely watched talk show in Chicago. And the author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, was a divorced single mom on public assistance when she gave herself a tight deadline to complete the first book in the series, thinking that she would soon need to return to teaching full time. It’s worth noting that her manuscript was rejected by numerous publishers before her series was accepted and went on to break almost every record in publishing history.

From dating to hang gliding

Risk means different things to different people. To help clear up confusion, psychologists have identified five major types of risk:

  • Recreational. Bungee jumping or hang gliding.
  • Social. Being willing to risk rejection to make a new friend or get a date.
  • Financial. Betting money on the stock market, starting a new business, or going into debt for a college education.
  • Health and Safety. Taking drugs, drinking excessively, skimping on medications
  • Ethical. Stealing, cheating on a spouse, generally taking chances that could harm other people.

Some types of risk are much more worthwhile than others. Ethical and health risks rarely turn out well in the end, Kruger says. On the other hand, recreational, financial, and social risks can all pay off big-time — especially when made with due consideration.

There’s not always a cut-and-dried difference between risk takers and the play-it-safe crowd. People who are cautious in one of the five realms can be daring in others. A person who would never quit his boring-but-reliable job may have the nerve to ask a complete stranger for a date. Or, Kruger says, “An investment banker could be very conservative in his investments, but then he might go hang gliding over the weekend.”

Some people seem born to take risks. As reported in the Journal of Psychology, adventurous, impulsive 3-year-olds tend to grow up to be devil-may-care adults, with many attracted to adventure sports, gambling, dangerous driving, and, on a more positive note, entrepreneurship. At least part of this risky behavior may be in the genes. Some experts believe that a single gene can shape a person’s desire for novelty and new sensations, a desire that often leads to risk-taking.

The right risks

By its very definition, you can never know for certain if any particular risk will pay off. But we can all take steps to stack the odds in our favor. The most successful people take the long view of their risks, Kruger says. While impulsive people often end up paying for their daring, people who think through potential consequences — both short-term and long-term — tend to take the sort of gambles that can improve their lives.

For an extreme example, people who take illegal drugs are clearly more interested in the immediate high than in their long-term well-being, Kruger says. People who can look to the future have a different approach to risk: They’re the ones who value their lives and livelihoods over a quick rush. They’re also the ones who carefully examine a company’s history before making an investment, get to really know a partner before proposing marriage, and triple-check all their equipment before going rock climbing.

There’s another reason to stop and think before taking any major risk. If you’re about to storm out of your office or propose to someone you’ve known for a week, you just might need a little time to calm down. Overly strong emotions, either positive or negative, can encourage foolish risk-taking, says Melissa Cyders, a risk researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

With a calm mind and an eye to the future, risks are worth taking, Cyders says. “Imagine a person who never takes any risks. They might never find a mate, never get a career that they enjoy, they might never make any friends.” In other words, trying to play it safe every time would be the biggest risk of all.


Interview with Daniel Kruger, PhD.

Interview with Melissa Cyders, PhD.

Wang, X et al. Life history variables and risk-taking propensity. Evolution and Human Behavior.; 30: 77-84. http://www.usd.edu/~xtwang/Papers/Life%20History%20Varaibles%20and%20Risk%20Taking%20(EHB).pdf

Llewellyn, D. The psychology of risk taking: Toward the integration of psychometric and neuropsychological paradigms. American Journal of Psychology; 121(3): 363-376.

Scholastic Books. Meet Author J.K. Rowling. http://www.scholastic.com/harrypotter/books/author/index.htm

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