Why Do We Take Risks?
There’s something that feels so dirty and so sweet about taking a risk, especially spontaneously. I can safely say that I would not have done half of the things I’ve done in my life (ask that guy out, write this article, try to have a positive attitude) if it weren’t for something that made me want to take a risk. What is that something? Risk, as a behavior, defies all logic. Psychologists, biologists, and significant others of sky-divers have been trying to figure out the reasons we take risks and what it means when we do– so do we have an answer?
Evolution would teach us that a living being’s ultimate objective is to survive and reproduce. This objective does not seem to fall into line with jumping out of a plane at high altitudes or watching your friends freeze to death as you all spend some quality time climbing Mount Everest. Do human beings, supposedly the most advanced creatures on the planet, have a death wish? That’s what Freud and other early psychologists originally thought about humans that engage in high-risk behaviors.
“Under conventional personality theories, normal individuals do everything possible to avoid risk.”
But as evidenced by real world observations of human behavior, there are some people that thrive off of the extreme, the unknown, and the dangerous. What percentage of the population is this? Do some people like risk more than others? It wasn’t until recently that scientists tried to find new ways to explain this phenomenon.
What defines risk anyway? One researcher has defined risk as “engaging in any activity with an uncertain outcome.” This includes anything from mountain climbing to asking someone new out on a date. According to Psychology Today, there are some people who continually seek out high-risk situations. This desire, which by some researchers is equated to an addiction, affects about 1 in 5 people, usually young males. However, we see risk-taking behaviors in all parts of the population. In fact, men are more prone to take risks with finances, but women are more likely to take risks in social situations.
Researchers point to the basic differences in the ways that men and women experience the world in adulthood and childhood. They claim that we tend to perceive things that we have done more as less risky, which could explain some of the discrepancy in the way that men and women take risks. There is other evidence that men and women perceive somewhat different things as risky, which could hold some important information about how we interact with one another. The bottom line is what some people consider a risk is perfectly safe for others.
Even when we think or know that something is risky, we are often inclined to do it. Why is that? We don’t necessarily have a death wish, but researchers say that we do have a brain chemistry that promotes certain kinds of actions to create certain feelings. These reactions are triggered by neurotransmitters, or chemicals in the brain that influence our thoughts and emotions. Researchers at Vanderbilt University recently found, using positron emission technology, or magnetic scans of the brain, that when we take risks, there is an extra release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter linked to the pleasure centers in our brains that. It is the same receptor released when we do drugs like cocaine, acting as basically a shot of good feeling in our brain. That means that when we take risks, the feeling we get is akin to the “high” described by drug-users. This accounts for the addictive feeling of risk-taking. Humans, apparently, crave dopamine, and thus, will find themselves doing all kinds of things for it.
Dopamine is a pretty great neurotransmitter, but I guess the idealist in me hopes that we take risks for a little something other than a dopamine rush. They are usually the things that move us forward and the things that can really make a difference in our lives. Risks, no matter how big or small, are the things that make a random Tuesday afternoon the Tuesday afternoon that changed our lives. So, go on, give in to that dopamine rush every once in a while—it could be the best worst decision you’ve ever made.
Written by Sarah Garner
Follow her on Twitter!
Header image courtesy of The 30 Before 30 Project