Why Do People Take Risks?

A rock climber rapelling from the top of Grand Grotta Cave on Kalymnos Island, Greece. (Image credit: sxc.hu)

Nick Sednew was working as a trumpet player aboard a cruise ship two years ago when it steered into a powerful storm between Antarctica and the southern tip of South America. The ship's captain told everyone to stay inside, and warning signs blocked the doors to the decks.

Sednew did not heed the warnings.

"I really like storms, and when else are you going to be in Antarctica? I wanted to witness it, so I went out past the signs," Sednew, 26, recently recounted.

The forces of nature were stronger than he expected. As the wind pushed against him, Sednew started running to get back inside, but the deck was slick with rain. He fell. "I broke my nose and cut my lip and there was blood everywhere," he said. Clinging to the railings to prevent being blown overboard, he clambered back to the door.

Many people feel the same urge Sednew felt: the desire to venture past the limits of safety in pursuit of a rewarding experience. Sednew was lucky to make it back alive: Sometimes risky desires can be deadly, as exemplified by the frequency of fatal sky-diving and mountain-climbing accidents. Indeed, excessive risk-taking significantly lowers one's life expectancy . So why has the urge evolved? And what explains the differences in what each of us is willing to wager?

As with most aspects of our behavior, the answer is buried deep in our evolutionary past.

Gender gap

There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking, men tend to take more risks than women do. "Especially with recreational risks and financial risks, you'll find this," said Andreas Wilke, an evolutionary psychologist at Clarkson University and an expert on risk-taking and decision-making. He says the gender divide points to the underlying reason for risk-taking.

"Besides societal and cultural reasons, there is also a biological underpinning that in part drives the sex difference," Wilke said. Men have more intra-sexual competition than women do for sex, and so they must advertise their sexual fitness through daring exploits more overtly. "Women are choosier in this context and so are predicted to be more risk-averse," he said.

While women tend to behave responsibly and make staid decisions, the burden is on men to impress them through acts of boldness and strength. "If you compare the behavior of a single adolescent male with his behavior when women are watching, you can see how the risk increases. In a competitive situation with his buddies, his risk increases substantially," Wilke said.

Of course, women take risks, too. Research shows they take more social risks than men; for example, they're more likely to change careers late in life or express unpopular opinions in business meetings. But they also take recreational risks . After all, women, just like men, must strive to impress.

Though people do become less risk-seeking as they age and as they enter into stable relationships, Wilke said men's testosterone level can shoot up again upon getting a divorce, and they again become more risk-prone. "Relationship status makes a surprisingly powerful predictor," he said.

But why do people (men and women) make certain risks but not others? Why is someone who doesn't think twice about bungee jumping unwilling to bet big in blackjack? Though people's risk behavior is complicated, psychologists actually have a simple theory to explain it.

Domains of daring

According to Wilke, risk-taking can lead to extraordinary success or extraordinary failure, and is thus an important aspect of the human condition, but for a long time, scientists struggled to define the behavior. "Risk is very widely different in terms of what kinds of risks people are willing to take and the subjective reasons for why they take risks," he told Life's Little Mysteries.

Rather than being generally risk-seeking or risk-avoiding, people are a complicated blend, he explained. "A person might be risk-seeking in a recreational risk way. But that person may be risk-averse in financial situations. They would do bungee jumping but wouldn't invest in the stock market ." Likewise, a financially reckless person who is willing to wager everything in a game of blackjack might never attempt a controversial joke in a conversation with strangers.

A Columbia University psychologist, Elke Weber, was the first to account for this subjectivity, with a model called "domain-specific risk propensity." It holds that everyone has a unique risk propensity in each of five categories: financial, health/safety, recreational, ethical and social.

At a given time in a person's life (depending on relationship status), his or her risk propensity in each category is inherent and unshakable. "People have inherent risk thresholds. When air bags were put in cars, for example, deaths did decrease, but not as much as they were predicted to. That's because people started to drive a little faster " thus keeping their overall safety risk level the same, Wilke said.

Weber and others have found that a person's risk propensity in one category says little about his or her propensity in another. But people still follow a predictable pattern. It turns out that, within a certain domain, a person's tendency to take risks correlates with how much he or she expects to benefit from the outcome. For example, in the safety risk category, Sednew likely placed a very high value on experiencing an Antarctic storm. Other people couldn't care less about having such an experience.

Consequently, studies show that Sednew was likely to perceive the risk of going outside during the storm as being much lower than other people would. According to Wilke, when people are optimistic about the outcome of their behavior, "they actually perceive it as not being risky. They might think, 'Well, I'm young these barriers apply to other people.'" [Is Optimism Good for You? ]

And indeed, that's what was going through Sednew's mind: "I kind of felt like, 'Yeah, I get why this rule is here, but it doesn't apply to me because I'm special or smarter than someone who would go out and hurt themselves,'" he said. "The rule is there, but you don't think it applies to you because you're in control."

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Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.