New research has confirmed what some scientists have long suspected — that human risk-taking behavior is more complex than previously (and popularly) thought.
People surveyed in the study were least likely to take fertility risks, and most likely to take risks related to social status in one’s group — like standing up to one’s boss. In all areas of life, men were significantly more likely to take risks than women.
Researchers previously believed that people generally fell into one of two categories: “risk seeking” or “risk adverse.” Based upon more recent thinking about risk-taking behavior, University of Michigan researchers looked at the subtleties involved in people’s decisions to take risks in different areas of their lives.
Daniel Kruger, a research scientist at the U-M School of Public Health, and colleagues X.T. Wang, University of South Dakota, and Andreas Wilke, UCLA, identified areas of risk taking (risk domains) based on the types of challenges that our ancestors faced during many thousands of years of human evolution.
The areas or domains of risk-taking the researchers examined included fertility (e.g., exposing oneself to chemicals that might lead to birth defects for a high-paying job), competition between two opposing groups of people (e.g., defending your local sports team against a rival’s), competition within a group of people (e.g., standing up to your boss), mating and resource allocation for attracting a mate (e.g., engaging in unprotected sex), and environmental risks (e.g., chasing a bear while camping).
Participants in the study rated each of 30 risky behaviors for the likelihood with which they would engage in each behavior or activity. Responses were given on a 5-point bipolar scale from 1 (very unlikely) to 5 (very likely) with the scale midpoint 3 being neutral.
Nearly 1,200 university college students from two large public universities participated.
The study found that individuals who exhibit high likelihood of risk-taking behavior in one area can exhibit moderate or low likelihood of risk taking in other areas of their life. In other words, someone who likes to skydive or chase bears in the woods may not have unprotected sex just because it too is risky.
“People are complex,” said lead researcher Kruger. “Just because somebody seems to be a big risk taker in one area doesn’t mean they will take risks in all areas.”
During human evolution, men competed for social status and resources in order to attract mates. Men taking greater risks than women, therefore, is not surprising, Kruger said.
The research was published in the most recent issue of Evolutionary Psychology.
Source: Evolutionary Psychology and the University of Michigan