Psychologists have been studying risk-taking behaviors for many decades, but they are only now beginning to grasp their complexity. A new study reveals that risk-takers' decisions are oftentimes influenced by the domain in which the risk applies, or the situation that informs it.
What this means is that people who are more likely to take risks do not take the same type or number of risks irrespective of the domains and situations they are in. A strong role in underlying these differences is played by the personal characteristics of each individual.
Some of the most widely-accepted ideas about taking risks is that women tend to be more cautious than men, whereas teens tend to be more reckless than adults. However, there is a lot more to these behaviors that such a simplistic interpretation.
In the new study, experts prove that women can take more risks than men in certain situations, whereas teens can be just as rational as any adult in a specific domain. The work will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Current Directions, PsychCentral
One of the reasons why past investigations were limited in their scope is the fact that they were conducted in the lab, where participants were asked to choose between a safe and a reckless scenario.
But this type of studies have no insight into what goes on in the mind of a person who decided to take the risk of driving home for work at high speed. It also provides no data on why a couple refuses to use a contraceptive measure, despite knowing full-well the risks they expose themselves too.
“The typical view is that women take less risks than men, that it starts early in childhood, in all cultures, and so on,” explains Columbia University and University of Amsterdam expert Bernd Figner, PhD. He is the coauthor of the paper with Columbia colleague Elke Weber, PhD.
The two say that, while men indeed take more financial risks, women tend to take more social risks, such as for example speaking about unpopular issues while at the workplace or at home. Ultimately, individual experiences are what lead men and women to have different perspectives on risk-taking.
“If you have more experience with a risky situation, you may perceive it as less risky,” the investigators explain. “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 adds.
The research team is aware of the fact that people cannot be made to abandon risky behaviors entirely. It is in our nature as a species to do so, and most of the time taking chances can lead to important rewards, such as a relationship partner, a better job and so on.
What the experts are interested in is minimizing the amount of regret associated with each risk people take. Studying this aspect of human life is proving to be tremendously complex.