New research finds that the personal characteristics of risk-takers are often not what we expect and that the decision to take a risk may be situational and vary among domains.
For example, it’s a common belief that women take fewer risks than men, and that adolescents always plunge in headlong without considering the consequences. But risk-taking behavior is more complicated.
According to the authors of a new paper which will be published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, adolescents can be as cool-headed as anyone, and in some realms, women take more risks than men.
Psychological research on risk-taking has traditionally come from lab studies where people are asked to choose between a guaranteed amount of money or a gamble for a larger amount. But that kind of decision isn’t the same as deciding whether you’re going to speed on the way home from work, wear a condom, or try bungee-jumping.
Moreover, experts are learning that the way people choose to take risks in one domain doesn’t necessarily hold in others.
“The typical view is that women take less risks than men, that it starts early in childhood, in all cultures, and so on,” said Bernd Figner, Ph.D., who cowrote the paper with Elke Weber, Ph.D.
Men are willing to take more risks in finances. But women take more social risks—a category that includes things like starting a new career in your mid-30s or speaking your mind about an unpopular issue in a meeting at work.
The researchers say that experience greatly influences the type of risk-taker a person may become and this explains why women and men perceive risks differently.
“If you have more experience with a risky situation, you may perceive it as less risky.”
Differences in how boys and girls encounter the world as they’re growing up may make them more comfortable with different kinds of risks.
Adolescents are known for risky behavior. But in lab tests, when they’re called on to think coolly about a situation, psychological scientists have found that adolescents are just as cautious as adults and children.
The difference between the lab and the real world, Figner says, is partly the extent to which they involve emotion. In an experiment where adolescents’ emotions got triggered strongly, they looked very different from children and adults and took bigger risks, just as observed in real world settings.
Emotion can affect decisions about risk-taking in all age groups, not just adolescents, Figner said. And the emotion doesn’t necessarily have to be triggered from the decision situation itself even; for example, if you’re angry about an argument, you might later drive too fast on the highway.
“Ultimately we would like to provide knowledge with our research that people can use to make decisions that are more beneficial for them in the long term,” Figner said.
Researchers say the goal isn’t to avoid risk as taking some risks can be beneficial and is in fact a part of life. The key is to help individuals make risky decisions that they won’t regret, either immediately after they have made them, or years later.