Risk-taking behaviors

Risk-taking behaviors have been the subject of much speculation, from Sigmund Freud's belief that dare-devil stunts arise out of humans' innate "death drive," to some modern psychologists' view that dangerous activities canmake us feel more alive. In general, we think of risky behavior as encompassing activities only a handful of courageous, or "crazy," people would attempt,including skydiving, rock climbing, cliff jumping, or other dramatic exploits. In reality, though, risk-taking behaviors also include more mundane acts,like having unprotected sex, gambling, robbing banks, and taking drugs. The reasons for these behaviors are complex, although not mysterious, and can meandifferent things to different people. In general, though, as poet Robert Browning wrote, "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things."

One commonly accepted theory about why people do risky things has to do withevolution. This theory holds that in one of the deep, dark, old parts of ourbrains, where the control centers for survival and reproduction are located,there are preprogrammed impulses in some people that stimulate them to take risks. These individuals are known in psychological terms as "risk seekers," whereas their more conservative counterparts are labeled "risk avoiders." (Inattempting to delineate the characteristics of human risk taking, however, itis important to note that we cannot reasonably divide the population into risk takers and risk avoiders. All people will both seek risk and avoid risk atdifferent points in their lives.) Sociologists and other experts believe that these very basic personality types evolved eons ago, and that despite the easier, more protected world most Western people now enjoy, they are not likely to change any time soon.

One of the reasons that risk-taking might have become such a cross-cultural and widespread human characteristic is endorphins. This word has come to be synonymous with the whole range of natural opiates (painkillers and relaxants)that the brain releases in response to imminent physical danger. Discovered by neurobiologist Candace Pert, endorphins enable us to balance the tremendousrush of adrenaline that flows into our bloodstreams during dangerous moments(producing the famous "fight-or-flight" response) with cool, calm thinking and an ability to give undivided attention to crucial matters despite the surrounding chaos. Pert believes that greater sensitivity to endorphins gave certain early humans a survival advantage, which meant that more of these individuals survived to transmit their genes to succeeding generations. Thus, humanswho took risks and responded well to the chemicals released by their brainsduring the ensuing danger lived to take other risks and pass on their tendencies to their offspring. According to biologist Charles Darwin's theory, thesewell-equipped individuals survived because they were the fittest of their species.

Early human risk takers were probably more likely to wander off established trails, possibly finding a new source of water or game. Such individuals mightalso have risked being seen as different in order to invent a new kind of weapon or animal trap, or to try eating a new plant or other potential food item. These acts would have triggered a pleasurable excitement in the risk taker, but might also have profoundly benefited his or her group--not only becausethe group would reap the rewards of the risk taker's discoveries, but because a single person took the experiment upon him- or herself, saving the rest from the potential danger involved in the risk.

Humans continue to take what are, in most modern cases, unnecessary risks. Despite the virtual elimination of physical risk from our daily lives, the craving for action still runs strong in our genetic makeup. This basic trait maybe enhanced and even strengthened by the fact that many societies give risk takers positive behavioral reinforcement. Everyone has seen how admired the race car drivers, the astronauts, the deep-sea explorers are. They risk their lives--sometimes for fun, sometimes to broaden the entire species' horizons. This positive reinforcement is a powerful force that, if it continues, will virtually guarantee the continuation of the genetic characteristics that predispose individuals to taking risks.

Besides bare survival, nature offers its own rewards for risk taking. The endorphins and adrenaline act on the nervous system to produce an exhilarating high that many people have compared to sex. Being in danger, whether willinglyor not, causes the heart to speed up and the breathing to quicken as we approach a peak of anticipation and excitement, after which comes a feeling of release and relaxation. Over the millennia, our bodies have grown accustomed tothis phenomenon and have even come to crave it, although this is true in some individuals more than others. For instance, some experts attribute the perennial popularity of running and similar exercise to our bodies' age-old conditioning to hunt prey and escape predators. The calm, relaxed, yet exhilarating feeling during and after such exercise is what keeps many runners "addicted" to the strenuous sport.

The motivation that the body offers as incentive for taking risks is strong,but the mind offers an equally compelling reason for why people do risky things. Ask any mountain biker, racecar driver, high-board diver, or extreme skateboarder why they take part in their respective sports, and most of them willmention the word "fun." Humans are one of only a small number of species that do things for fun, and we are forever inventing new ways to enjoy ourselves. However, some people get a special thrill from engaging in activities thatcould hurt or even kill them. For these people, the thought of leading a boring existence might be even more frightening than the idea of jumping out of an airplane at 15,000 feet. Author Jack London expressed this phenomenon concisely when he wrote, "The adventurer gambles with life to heighten sensation--to make it glow for a moment."

There have been many studies on what kind of people take risks. Scientists generally agree that the genetic makeup of the typical risk-taking person is exhibited in certain characteristics. For instance, there seems to be strong evidence that men are more likely to enjoy taking risks than women. This makessense from an evolutionary standpoint, since men have almost always been thehunters and explorers and women have usually stayed close to the children andcared for them and the men in less adventurous, but no less important, ways.However, there are many women today who enjoy taking risks as well--among them many distinguished aerobatic pilots, rock climbers, skiers, hang gliders,and others. (It may be that cultural conditioning and lack of opportunity account for the large gender difference in such activities.) In addition, risk takers seem to have in common an enhanced ability for dopamine reuptake, i.e.,their brains respond more strongly to the chemicals released during stress.One Israeli study claimed in 1996 to have found what it called the "risk gene," labeling it D4DR, for "fourth dopamine receptor gene." They even located it on the 11th chromosome and pinpointed its function in the limbic portion ofthe brain. However, the study also said the gene would be responsible for only 10 percent of human risk-taking behavior.

In terms of actual personality traits, a targeted personality test (adapted in Israel from a U.S. template) has shown that risk takers tend to be fickle,hot-tempered, exploratory, extravagant, and excitable, while their risk-avoiding counterparts tend to be more stoic, thoughtful, frugal, even-tempered, and loyal. Also, risk takers frequently experience arousal similar to that associated with sex. Many skydivers, racecar drivers, and other risk takers oftencompare their favorite activity with sex, calling it "orgasmic" or even branding it "better than sex."

Another reason that some people like to take risks is that it unites them with others who participate in the same sport or activity, producing an intensecamaraderie centered around cheating death, injury, or other mishap. To the outsider, these people, when questioned, will stress the numerous safety precautions they take and their desire to pursue their chosen hobbies in a judicious manner. Yet when a group of skydivers, for instance, assemble after a dayof jumping, the talk is almost always about close calls and near disasters. This discourse creates and emphasizes the adventurers' corps d'esprit and serves to prove their mettle to each other. Most studies agree that risk takers are likely to be extremely individualistic, often to the point of being loners. Paradoxically, this is true despite their enjoyment of interacting with others who participate in their chosen activity. Most often, however, the intense friendships engendered by participating in the chosen risk will end if thatshared activity also ends.

Many people who love to take risks are also characterized by a consuming desire to control their own destiny. Far from succumbing to Freud's presumed death wish, they are avid proponents of living life to its fullest, and only feardescending into the gray, shadowless world of the mundane. By taking part inactivities in which they could be injured or killed, and by repeatedly drawing back from the brink through their use of skill and disciplined preparation, risk takers achieve the sense that they can elude death at will and are, even if momentarily, omnipotent. Thus, it is important to note that such risk takers as "extreme" athletes are not interested in dangerous activities, per se, but in experiencing danger that they can control and master to the utmostdegree. Author Michael Apter describes this as the "the tiger in the cage" phenomenon, wherein risk seekers want the danger of the tiger, but also the safety of knowing the beast can be contained. Risk seekers have a strong need for control in most or all areas of their lives. Indeed, some experts have suggested that taking risks, ironically, may bring periods of welcome abandon toindividuals who have trouble letting life "just happen."

Risk taking can occur in much more ordinary forms than the spectacular outdoor exploits that most of us just watch with awe, horror, or disbelief. For instance, some surgeons have reported getting the same adrenaline surge that mountaineers and other athletes have experienced, although their "rush" is the product of standing in one place for 13 hours to save patients from cancer orother serious illness. Again, though, the surgeon counteracts the possibly dire consequences of failure, i.e., the tiger, with the "cage" created by his or her intense concentration and skill. Even such personal acts as giving up adull but secure job to take an exciting new position can produce the rejuvenating exhilaration of excitement and risk. Indeed, some people might considerthis riskier than parachuting or mountain climbing, depending on their priorities.

Taking risks is a form of what we might collectively call "gambling"--whetherwith one's life or one's professional status. The pursuit of gambling itself, for instance, can and does lead to financial losses, and, like many of theother risk-taking behaviors, it also breaks up marriages and other relationships, can lead to addiction, and may cause personal ruin. However, to the risk-taking personality, gambling, with its threat of financial ruin and promiseof easy riches, is just as seductive as deep-sea exploration is to the diver.

Some scientists embody another variation on the risk-taker personality. Exposing themselves to professional and public embarrassment, they nevertheless persist in searching for clues to the cure for AIDS, to the smallest unit of matter, to whether God exists. All of these might be considered adventurous exploits of the mind, and are no less risky to the individuals involved. Sociobiologist E. O. Wilson has commented, "Scientists ... spend their productive lives struggling to reach the edge of knowledge in order to make discoveries."Just as the mountaineer risks death or injury to reach the summit of a difficult climb, these scientists risk ridicule and failure to discover answers tolife's most perplexing riddles.

But what of the individuals who take risks like having sex with a stranger without a condom, shoplifting, committing an act of aggression or violence, ortaking drugs? What motivates them? In short, the impetus for such individualsis partially the same as for those who participate in such risks as paragliding or cliff jumping--they get gratification from the danger involved in these activities. However, there is an important difference between the paraglider and the casual shoplifter: the latter is engaging in antisocial behavior, i.e., in behavior inconsiderate of the needs of others. One activity might beconsidered life affirming, the other a manifestation of anger and alienation.

Antisocial risk takers generally have a socially negative outlook and repeatedly engage in activities that society perceives as abnormal. Granted, the teleskier might be perceived by some as "abnormal" in the sense that most peoplewould never attempt such a dangerous exploit, but society will simultaneously reward him or her in various ways for "pushing the envelope" of human experience and endurance. Conversely, the antisocial risk taker will usually receive only imprisonment, disease, divorce, or condemnation in response to his orher activities. Gambling, unsafe sex, crime, drug use: these rarely offer any sort of benefit to either the person who does them or to anyone else. Instead, they frequently lead to misery and destruction, whereas the more positiverisk-taking behaviors could be regarded as having a spiritual aspect and anelement of joy.

Yet as with most attempts to define the human character, it is impossible toignore the dichotomies present in a single act. While we may not condone or reward negative risk-taking activities, they can still serve a purpose. For instance, the scientist who arrogantly suggests that the accepted treatment fora disease is not the best method or the artist who deliberately ridicules the revered works of the previous generation are taking risks that they themselves will be shunned professionally for their views. There might even be an argument that the drug user is experimenting with accepted mental limitations.However, this type of behavior represents negative risk taking in its best light: it manifests our refusal to limit ourselves to the norm and our stubborncommitment to self-determination and free will.

Just as the astronaut extends the horizons of mankind, the rebel helps to point out areas where we can expand. Thus, while some negative risk taking mightbe perceived as trouble making, raising hell, or just "stirring the pot," itgenerally serves the same purpose, to various degrees, as the more sociallyrewarded (and rewarding) risk-taking behaviors. Historian A. J. P. Taylor summed up this idea when he wrote, "All change in history, all advance, comes from nonconformity. If there had been no troublemakers, no dissenters, we should still be living in caves."

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