Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Risk-taking

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Why do we take risks? What are the consequences of risk-taking?
Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Do you binge drink, smoke cigarettes, take drugs, drink and drive or have unprotected sex? If you have ever engaged in any of these behaviours you may not be aware that you are a risk-taker. And in some cases it's not just a behaviour, it's a part of your personality.

Take Cindy for example:

Cindy lives for excitement. She dies of boredom when life becomes too predictable. She has a wide circle of friends but no tolerance for party poopers. She likes meeting exciting new people, even if she knows that they are unreliable. She smokes cigarettes and marijuana, drinks hard and parties heavily on weekends with any party drug she can get her hands on. She thinks nothing of going to bed with someone she just met, without knowing who they are and with no concern for protection. She has a fast car that she's drives recklessly. She also likes to gamble at the casino, often losing more than she can afford.

Cindy’s behaviour encompasses many kinds of risk. In the long-term, the most dangerous of her activities are smoking and drinking. There are nearly 80 times as many deaths per year from tobacco and alcohol as from cocaine and heroin (Kashdan, Collins, & Elhai, 2006). But Cindy thinks only of today's gratifications, not their associated dangers. While Cindy is a fictional character, she represents a kind of general risk-taker, one whose behavior encompasses many different activities.

Risk can be classified as the potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome; Richardson & Garavan, 2010). The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome exists (or existed). Potential losses themselves may also be called "risks". Almost any human endeavour carries some risk, but some are much more risky than others (Richardson & Garavan, 2010).

Taking a risk is when you experiment with a new behaviour. It can be a healthy and a positive way to:

  • Test your limits
  • Test other peoples boundaries
  • Learn new skills and experience new things (including in work, study, relationships)
  • Experiment with new identities
  • Increase your self-esteem
  • Take on more independence and responsibility for your life.

Taking risks can be fun and give you an adrenaline rush but sometimes those risks may affect your well-being and cause you harm (Hamilton, 1974). So why do we take risks? What are some of the consequences of risky behaviour and how can we manage risk-taking healthily?

The problem[edit | edit source]

Engaging in risky behaviours can become a problem if it has a negative effect on your day-to-day life.

Examples of unhealthy risky behaviours might be:

  • Unprotected sex
  • Drink driving
  • Train surfing
  • Drug or alcohol abuse, including binge-drinking
  • Deliberate self-harm
  • Dropping out of school or getting suspended regularly
  • Breaking the law, e.g. shoplifting, and
  • Severe or excessive dieting.

One of the major problems and long term consequences of engaging in risky behaviour consistently is the negative effect it can have on an individuals ability to function as a fully functioning and successful member of society (Blair, 2010). As well as negatively affecting an individual's ability to form well rounded and healthy romantic relationships (Blair, 2010)[grammar?]. Although the development of intimate and romantic relationships is affected by a variety of family, peer, and social context factors, it is necessary to realise that people's involvement with alcohol, drugs, and delinquency may influence their prospects for a romantic relationship (Blair, 2010)[explain?].

Risk-taking behaviours such as substance use does not occur without a variety of consequences for individuals, including a variety of psychosocial and behavioral problems during adolescence and early adulthood (Sharoni et al., 2008). Binge drinking has been associated with lower rates of educational attainment, antisocial and violent behaviour, driving under the influence, and even health problems, such as obesity (Blair, 2010).

Marijuana use also has the potential to bring about many detrimental consequences. In a manner similar to alcohol use, high rates of marijuana usage have been associated with lower educational performance and lower expectations for success, problems relating to other family members, a greater likelihood to use more illicit drugs in the future, and a combination of physical and psychological health problems (Blair, 2010). The use of illicit substances by individuals, such as cocaine, has been linked to consequences similar to those shown among individuals who drink heavily and smoke marijuana (Soheil et al., 2010).

Why do we take risks?[edit | edit source]

During the different stages of life, people can become vulnerable to the influences of peer pressure and popular culture (ABS, 2009). This can lead to individuals being inclined to experiment, push boundaries and take risks that could impact on their own and others immediate and longer term health and wellbeing (ABS 2009).

The reasons you might take in unhealthy risks, include:

  • Peer pressure and group polarization - It is not uncommon to want to have respect from your peer group or those whose opinion may be important to you. Engaging in a risky or dangerous activity or behaviour may be a way for you to feel accepted and part of the group.
  • Believing that it's a way of proving to yourself or others that you're an adult and that you are responsible for your own actions.
  • Dealing with problems or escaping from unhappy situations or feelings. It may not always be obvious that you are using the behaviour as a way of managing your problem or unhappy situation.
  • As a form of rebellion against something or someone.
  • To get attention or a response from someone.

There are also theories that attribute risk-taking behaviours to hormonal changes and genetic dispositions and sensation-seeking tendencies (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007). From a cognitive perspective, cognitive processes such as decision-making, perceptions of gains and losses are emphasised (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007), whereas from a social and environmental perspective the influence of parents, teachers, peers, community and culture are focused upon (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007).

Several studies have also highlighted a link between exposure to trauma and risk-taking behaviours in adolescents (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007). Young people exposed to traumatic disasters reported an increase in risk-taking behaviours, such as alcohol use, smoking, car racing, violence, and higher rates of delinquency and teen pregnancies (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007). Pat-Horenczyk et al., (2007) also reported that adolescents who are exposed to community violence encountered increased drug and alcohol use, substance abuse and delinquency rates. It has been reported that exposure to traumatic events is highly associated with increased risk-taking behaviours due to he tendency for behavioural reenactment (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007). Behavioural reenactment has been described as a repetition of actions, either seen or imagined, during moments of the traumatic event (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007).

Consequences of risk-taking behaviour[edit | edit source]

Risk-taking behaviour can be defined as a volitional behaviour where the outcome if not known or uncertain and will more than likely result in a negative consequence (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007). Dangerous driving, drug and alcohol use, unprotected sex, delinquency, eating disorders and self-harm are just some of the many behaviours and consequences that fall under the banner of risky behaviours. While these behaviours can be applied to any able age group, adolescents are more prone than any other age group to engage in these activities (McClelland & Watson 1973).

While it is true that risk-taking in certain aspects can be viewed as an functional and goal-directed behaviour that can bring about positive change and results (Pat-Horenczyk et al., 2007). It is also true that when taken too far and the consequences of certain actions are not taken into account or dismissed, risky behaviour can result in unhealthy and sometimes life threatening consequences.

Listed below are some unwanted consequences of risky behaviour:

  • Unprotected sex: Unwanted pregnancy, STD's.
  • Drink driving: Imprisonment, harming another human being, police record, loss of licence and possibly job.
  • Physical harm from adventurous activities such as sky diving or car surfing.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse, including binge-drinking: Imprisonment or physical harm from acts performed whilst intoxicated, permanent liver damage, addiction.
  • Deliberate self-harm: Hospitalisation.
  • Dropping out of school or getting suspended regularly: Limited future education and employment opportunities.
  • Breaking the law: Imprisonment, Police record.
  • Severe or excessive dieting: Anorexia, Bulimia resulting in life long struggle and/or hospitalisation.

While all of the possible consequences mentioned above would be terrible to suffer, drink driving along with binge drinking and the use of illicit drugs have proved to be some of the main causes of fatalities and hospitalisations of youth in Australia, with the number only increasing (ABS, 2009).

The reasons behind this could be due to the rapid psychological and physical transitions that youth go through during childhood and adulthood (ABS, 2009). Youth are inclined to experiment and take risks that could impact their own health and the health of others without properly thinking through the consequences (ABS, 2009).

Binge drinking is generally classified as short-term high risk drinking leading to immediate and quite severe intoxication (ABS, 2009). As well as seriously negatively affecting a person’s health, binge drinking can also lead to a person being more likely to engage in extremely risky behaviours that they normally would not engage in when sober. In 2007 survey taken by the National Drug Strategy Household, 19% of young men aged between 18-24 years admitted that they engaged in binge drinking behaviour at least once a week in the last year (ABS, 2009) (Refer to figure 1.1). Women were almost as likely to engage in binge drinking behaviour with 16% reporting that they engaged in such behaviour in the last year (ABS, 2009), which was three times higher than the 5% of women 25 years or older.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) also reported that people aged 20-24 years also had the highest rate of all age groups for dangerous or negligent driving (Refer to figure 1.2). Within this age bracket the rate for men was 712 adjunctions per 100,000 while women’s rate was seven times lower with only 97 adjunctions per 100,000.

Illicit drug use is another activity undertaken by young people engaging in risky behaviours, with the average age for first use of meth/amphetamines being 21 years and ecstasy being 23 years (ABS, 2009). The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) reports that in 2005-2006 there were 11,700 hospitalisations related to drug use for young people aged between 15-24 years, with 60% of these being for young women. Intentional self-harm by use of drugs or medications was also involved in three out of five hospitaliations for young women (ABS, 2009).

Risk assessment[edit | edit source]

Risk assessment is a step in a risk management procedure. Risk assessment is the determination of quantitative or qualitative value of risk related to a concrete situation and a recognized threat (also called hazard). Quantitative risk assessment requires calculations of two components of risk, the magnitude of the potential loss, and the probability, that the loss will occur (Sorrentino, Hewitt, & Raso-Knott, 1992).

Individuals obviously differ in all aspects of behaviour and personality and the same can be said for propensity of risk-taking behaviours (Rubio et al., 2010). While some individuals demonstrate sparse or spontaneous risk-taking behaviours, others continuously demonstrate consistent risk-taking behaviours (Rubio et al., 2010). There are a few different means in use in order to measure someone’s risk-taking tendencies, three of which are the Betting Dice Test, the Iowa Gambling Task and the Balloon Analog Risk Task; these will be outlined below (Rubio et al., 2010).

The Iowa Gambling Task is a computer-based task in which participants have to select cards from one out of four decks in order to get as much money as they can; when the card is selected, the amount won is indicated. The decks differ in the amount of immediate gain versus the possibility of penalty with larger rewards and losses in decks A and B than in decks C and D (Rubio et al., 2010). The optimum results are achieved by avoiding decks A, B and selecting cards from decks C and D. The IGT is not a pure risk propensity measure. Instead, it is a measure of decision-making impairment usually present in ventro-medial prefrontal cortex damaged patients. In fact, the expected values of the four decks are not the same. It is expected that unimpaired people choose cards from the more “advantageous” decks (Rubio et al., 2010).

A second behavioral measure is the Balloon Analog Risk Task in which participants pump up an on-screen balloon with the aim of making it as large as possible without causing it to explode (Wallsten, Pleskac, & Lejuez, 2005). The balloons have different explosion probabilities from the first to the 128th pump; as long as it doesn’t explode, the larger the balloon is pumped, the greater the gain. The Balloon Analog Risk Task can be considered a “pure” measure of risk propensity as long because it clearly presents a risky situation in which alternatives have different (uncertain) probabilities and rewards (Wallsten, Pleskac, & Lejuez, 2005).

A third behavioural measure of risk-propensity is the Betting Dice Test (BDT), which consists of betting on one out of four alternatives that can result when throwing two dice. The higher the probability of occurrence, the lower the reward associated (Rubio et al., 2010). Contrary to the Balloon Analog Risk Task, where the expected values of the alternatives change throughout the test, the expected values of the Betting Dice Test options are always the same. It is therefore assumed that participants who bet on the more probable but less rewarded alternative are making a more conservative selection than those who place the less probable though more rewarded bet (Rubio et al., 2010). Moreover, no feedback is given after each bet. Participants' selections are free from the previous results obtained. The test developed from a risk-return tradeoff framework: Potential return rises with increase in risk, so that low levels of risk are associated with low potential returns, and high levels of risk are associated with high potential returns.

Self-test[edit | edit source]

Click on this link to take a Psychtest on-line to help determine your own risk-taking behaviours!

Risk management[edit | edit source]

You may be thinking about taking a risk or are already engaging in risk-taking behaviours. Changing your behaviour can be tough, particularly if you have been engaging in risky behaviour for a while. If you are feeling pressure to change, the change will require changing your lifestyle, or moving away from some people that you associate with for a period of time.

The following steps may help you decide whether you want to continue or change your behaviour:

  • Identify: Sometimes you may not be aware that a behaviour is unhelpful or unhealthy. Identify the risks and benefits of your behaviour and how it effects others and yourself (e.g. health, work, family etc).
  • Contemplation: Think about the pros and cons of changing your behaviour. This might include thinking about how you can reduce the risks associated with the problem or risky behaviour.
  • Decision: If you do decide a change in behaviour is needed, start by making a plan to change. This might include action plans and setting small, gradual goals.
  • Action: As you start carrying out your action plan make sure you reward yourself for reaching each goal, in order to provide positive reinforcement. Identifying barriers to change, coping skills, and social supports is also important.
  • Maintenance: Develop strategies for sustaining the changes. This may be through your social supports and by reminding yourself why you decided to change your behaviour in the first place.
  • Relapse: You might find yourself reverting back to the unhelpful behaviour. It's important not to blame yourself or feel guilty. Changing behaviour can be hard and relapse is not uncommon, what is important is that you keep trying to lead a healthier and safer lifestyle (Richardson & Garavan, 2010).

Summary[edit | edit source]

Risk-taking is a part of everyday life. Accomplishing things that you aren't 100% sure are going to work out the way you want, requires you to take a chance that it is going to work. It is when risk-taking takes a turn for the dangerous and unhealthy that it can become a problem for individuals and the people they are close to.

In order to manage risk-taking behaviours effectively it is necessary to observe your own behaviour closely and try to pinpoint what it is that makes you behave in risky ways. Once you have identified these events or behaviours, name the decision to change. Set goals and make an action plan with positive reinforcers along the way. If external help or motivation is needed get in contact with a help-line or ask friends and family for assistance.

There are a few psychological assessments of an individual's risk propensity, most of which are useful but none of which are agreed with complete consensus that it is correctly measuring risk-taking.

The consequences of risk-taking can be devastating and long-term and the time should be taken to learn how to manage your own or to help someone else realise and moderate risk-taking behaviours.

Key terms[edit | edit source]

Risk: The potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome).

Risk-Taking behaviour: A volitional behaviour where the outcome if not known or uncertain and will more than likely result in a negative consequence.

Risk-propensity: Degree to which an entity is willing to take chances with respect to risk of loss.

Binge-drinking: Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol in a short amount of time, leading to serious health and social consequences.

Substance Use: A pattern of harmful use of any substance for mood-altering purposes.

Peer Pressure: Social pressure by members of one's peer group to take a certain action, adopt certain values, or otherwise conform in order to be accepted.

Behavioural Reenactment: A repetition of actions, either seen or imagined, during moments of a traumatic event.

Illicit Drugs: Drugs which are under international control (and which may or may not have licit medical purposes) but which are produced, trafficked and/or consumed illicitly.

Finding help[edit | edit source]

Cocaine Anonymous Australia

Help Line - +61 (0)432 040 023

Alcoholics Anonymous Australia

Help Line - + (02) 6287 3020

Marijuana Anonymous Australia

Help Line - +61 (0)403 945 083

Narcotics Anonymous Australia

Help Line - + (02) 9565 1453

Beyond Blue Australia

Help Line - 1300 22 4636

Pregnancy, Birth & Baby Helpline Australia

Help Line - 1800 882 436

Gats counselling (Counselling services)

Beyond blue: National Depression Initiative (Online resources & counselling services)

Youth beyond blue (Youth online resources & counselling services)

My self help(Online support)

See also[edit | edit source]

These links will guide you to other relevant book chapters from the Motivation & Emotion unit, 2011.

References[edit | edit source]

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (December, 2009). Risk-Taking By Young People: Australian Social Trends. Retrieved from

Blair, S. (2010). The Influence of Risk-Taking Behaviours on the Transition Into Marriage: An Examination of the Long-Term Consequences of Adolescent Behaviour. Marriage & Family Review, 46, 126-146. doi: 10.1080/01494921003685169

Hamilton. J., (1974). Motivation and Risk Taking Behaviour: A Test of Atkinson’s Theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(6), 856-864. doi: 10.1037/h0036463

Kashdan, T., Collins, L., & Elhai, J. (2006). Social Anxiety and Positive Outcome Expectancies on Risk-Taking Behaviours. Cogn Ther Res, 30, 749-761. doi: 10.1007/s10608-006-9017-x

McClelland, D., & Watson, R. (1973). Power Motivation and Risk-taking Behaviour. Journal of Personailty, 41(1), 121-139. doi: 10.1111/1467-6494.ep8969262

Pat-Horenczyk, R., Peled, O., Miron, T., Brom, D., Villa, Y., & Chemtob, C. (2007). Risk-Taking Behaviors Among Israeli Adolescents Exposed to Recurrent Terrorism: Provoking Danger Under Continuous Threat? The American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(4), 66-72. Retrieved from

Pawlowski, B., Atwal, Rajinder., & Dunbar, R. (2008). Sex Differences in Everyday Risk-Taking Behavior in Humans. Evolutionary Psychology, 6(1), 29-42. Retrieved from

Richardson, T., & Garavan, H. (2010). Relationships Between Hypomanic Symptoms and Impulsivity and Risk-taking Propensity an International Sample of Undergraduate Students. URJHS, 9. Retrieved November 02, 2011 from

Rubio, V., Hernández, J., Zaldívar, F., Flor., Márquez., Oliva., Santacreu., & José. (2010). Can We Predict Risk-taking Behavior? Two Behavioral Tests for Predicting Guessing Tendencies in a Multiple-choice Test. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 26(2), 87-94. doi: 10.1027/1015-5759/a000013

Sorrentino, R., Hewitt, E., & Raso-Knott, P. (1992). Risk-taking in Games of Chance and Skill: Informational and Affective Influences on Choice Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(3), 522-533. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.62.3.522

Sharoni, S., Taly, R., Erez, T., Ido., E., & Arnon, L. (2008). Perceptual Accuracy and Conflicting Effects of Certainty on Risk-taking Behaviour. Nature, 453, 917-920. doi: 10.1038/nature06841

Soheil, S., Masoud, N., Moigan, K., & Vafa, R. (2010). Perceived Risk and Risk-taking Behaviour During the Festival Firework. Am J Health Bhevaiour, 35(5), 525-531. Retrieved from

Wallsten, T., Pleskac, T., & Lejuez, C. (2005). Modeling Behavior in a Clinically Diagnostic Sequential Risk-Taking Task. Psychological Review, 112(4), 862-880. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.112.4.862