Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Healthy risk-taking

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Healthy risk-taking:
What is healthy risk-taking and how can it be fostered?

Overview[edit | edit source]

When you first thing of risk-taking and risky behaviour, what comes to mind? More often than not, you are probably thinking of negative events and unwanted outcomes. However, most of the time people take risks because they perceive there is something to be gained or a potential benefit on offer. Risk is an inevitable part of daily life, and in fact, risk is considered desirable in some cases, such as adventure tourism, and fundamental in others, like children's play. This book chapter offers a definition of risk, with particular focus on healthy risk-taking (i.e., those risks that have the potential to provide benefit or a positive outcome), describes some theories and perspectives that attempt to help us understand the nature of risk-taking behaviours and also reviews some research that has fostered healthy risk-taking. Finally, some take away points are offered; ideas about fostering healthy risk-taking that you might be able to take away and act upon.

Focus questions:

  • What is risk?
  • What is the nature of risk-taking: what theories and perspectives explain risk-taking behaviour?
  • What are some ways that healthy risk-taking can be fostered?

Case Study: Alexa is 16 and wants to go on the school snow trip. Her mother, who had a traumatic injury from skiing when she was younger, does not want Alexa to go. Most especially because Alexas friends, who were caught drinking on the school oval last Friday, are also going. Alexa's mum worries that the kids could access alcohol on the trip and Alexa could get seriously hurt.

What is a healthy risk?[edit | edit source]

Risk[edit | edit source]

Before diving into healthy risks, it is important to first understand what a risk is:

  • Risk: "An unwanted event which may or may not occur" (Hansson, 2018).
  • Risk: "The possibility of something bad happening at some time in the future; a situation that could be dangerous or have a bad result" (Oxford Learner's Dictionary,2021).

So risky-taking might be understood as a situation or behaviour which has the potential to produce a negative outcome (Zinn, 2017). When taking a risk, the performer must have knowledge of the potential positive and negative outcomes (Zinn, 2017). Based on these definitions, it is easy to see why risk and risk-taking are commonly associated with a range of negative outcomes.

Risk-taking can take several different forms, for example Cooke et al. (2020) differentiated between:

  • Physical: choosing to behave in such a manner those exposes one to potential physical injury, where there are alternative ways to behave that do not present the same outcomes.
  • Emotional: choosing to expose oneself to an emotionally vulnerable situation where results may not be favourable.
  • Social: risk-taking behaviour that occurs in a social environment, or is influence by a social scenario.
  • Cognitive: functioning at the limit of ones current cognitive ability (e.g., a mathematician or physicist working to solve a novel problem).

So why would people participate in risk-taking behaviours? Well, there is a body of research that refers to healthy risk-taking and its associated positive outcomes.

Healthy risk-taking[edit | edit source]

Cooke et al. (2020) defined healthy risk-taking as "voluntarily engaging in experiences that can take a person outside their comfort zone and have potential benefits to learning, development and life satisfaction.". For example, risk-taking in the form of risky play is important in children's physical, cognitive, emotional and social development while it may also be able to reduce mental illness and learning difficulties, and afford us the chance to learn to perceive and manage risks (Brussoni et al., 2015; Niehues et al., 2016). Conversely, avoidance of risk-taking is suggested to lead to perfectionistic tendencies in children (Wilson & Adelson, 2010). These articles together paint risky-taking as a necessary part of life where risk-taking it self can be seen as healthy because it arms us with experiences that prepares us to manage events throughout our lives.

Unhealthy risk-taking[edit | edit source]

While risk-taking can be viewed favourably, there are still situations and behaviours that are seen to have very few positive outcomes. For example, Brailovskaia et al . (2018) have researched risky health behaviours such as harmful alcohol consumption, smoking, risky sexual behaviours and driving without a seatbelt. Others also consider extreme sports ("Should Teens Do Extreme Sports?", 2016), stunts, substance use and texting while driving (MSU Extensions, 2016) as unacceptably risky.

Case Study: Alexa could engage in healthy physical risk-taking on the snow trip. There is potential for physical injury, but there is an opportunity to get out of her comfort zone and enjoy a new experience. This experience could be unhealthy or too risky, but with proper equipment, lessons and supervision from the school staff, the risk could be manageable.

The nature of risk-taking[edit | edit source]

Although there are certain to be many more facets to risk-taking behaviour, literature makes salient its social nature and its subjectivity.

Social contexts and risk-taking[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Dopamine Pathways. The frontal cortex and ventral tegmental area (VTA) have been shown to be at heighten sensitivity to dopamine in adolescents (Nelson et al., 2007 in Steinberg, 2008).

Risk-taking is said to be bound in social processes (Zinn, 2017). Risk-taking is suggested to support the development and maintenance of a meaningful identity, ongoing friendships and intimate relationships (Zinn, 2017). Zinn (2016a) also suggests that social institutions guide how people manage risk and understand that some things cannot be attained with risk-taking. Boholm and Corvellec (2011) proposed a relational theory of risk in which they identified three components: risk object (representing a hazard or something dangerous), an object at risk (something given a value that is worthy of protection) and a relationship of risk (the link, established by the risk-taker, between risk object and object at risk). Boholm and Corvellec (2011) also wrote that risk is culturally biased; what is deemed an object at risk is dictated by socially determined values and beliefs.

Steinberg (2008) who offered a social neuroscience perspective on risk-taking in adolescence also suggested a social-emotional system contributes to adolescent risk-taking behaviours. Steinberg suggests that our brain region that responds to social stimuli has considerable cross-over with the neural sensation-seeking/reward centre, which is responsive to dopamine. During adolescence our dopaminergic system is remodelled resulting in heightened sensitivity to both social stimuli and rewards and this, Steinberg (2008), suggests explains why adolescents appear to take more risks.

So, risk-taking appears to be tangled up in social context: the reasons we take risk are socially bound, what poses a risk and what is things are deemed to be at risk depends on what our culture and our social environment dictate and even our brain and neurotransmitters may be wired to process risk in response to social settings, at least in puberty.

Subjectivity of risk-taking[edit | edit source]

Risk-taking is also subjective; what one person perceives as risky may be well within another persons comfort zone. Research on educators perceptions of children's risk-taking behaviours highlighted that risk perception is the subjective assessment of the likelihood of negative outcomes, and how worried we are about those outcomes is affected by things such as culture, gender, age and past experience (Cooke et al., 2020). The educators that participated in this study also described risk to be a perception of the individual and that all individuals are different (Cooke et al., 2020). To help explain the subjective nature of risk-taking Weber et al. (2002) suggested that peoples preference towards risky behaviours is a trade off between an options expected benefit and its riskiness:

Preference (X) = a(Expected Benefit (X)) + b(Perceived Risk (X))

In this representation of risk-taking preference 'X' represents the preferred/chosen risky behavioural alternative, 'a' represents the attitude towards the 'Expected benefit' of alternative X and 'b' is the attitude towards the 'Perceived risk' of alternative X. This take on Behavioural Decision Theory suggests that preference to engage in a risky behaviour is open to each individuals unique interpretation of and attitude towards the risks and benefits of that behaviour.

An alternative way to understand risk-taking is through the expected utility hypothesis and Conte's (2011) Mixed models of choice under risk which argues that there is heterogeneity between individuals risk choices and heterogeneity within individuals. Simply put, there is variation in risk -taking and -perception from person to person, and there is variation in the risk -taking and -perception of one person even when they are faced with identical situations on different occasions.

Case Study: Alexa's risk-taking behaviour may be influenced by the presence of her peers. She may push herself a little harder in ski lessons to gain social approval and maintain a place in that friend ship group. Because she is 16, Steinberg (2008) suggests that the combination of her age and neural development and the presence of her friends would make her extra sensitive to the new sensation of skiing, the rewards involved and the social stimuli.

Alexa's mum would have a subjective take on the risks involved. She may perceive the potential negative outcomes far out weigh the benefits, while Alexa is probably excited about being away from home with her friends and a new adventure.

Fostering healthy risk-taking[edit | edit source]

Fostering healthy risk-taking in children[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Playground with fixed components.

In the early years of life, it seems that parents play an integral role in fostering children's healthy risk-taking. A study that examined adolescents retrospective perceptions of parenting styles, participants who recalled their parents as permissive or authoritarian during their childhood showed lower regulatory self-efficacy in adolescence, which mediated for higher risk-taking behaviours (Olivari et al., 2018). This suggests that authoritative parenting, characterised by warm, sensitivity and setting of limits, might allow young children to learn their limits and abilities at an early age. This affords them the strength (i.e., regulatory self-efficacy) to resist risk-taking behaviours they might be uncomfortable with in adolescence, such as being able to better judge a risky behaviour when peer pressure is a factor (Olivari et al., 2018). On a similar vein, a study that examined the dilemmas adults experience as they try to balance protecting their children and allowing freedom to take age appropriate risks, the authors were able to discern some strategies to help with parents dilemmas (Niehues et al., 2016). Niehues et al. suggested taking an autonomy supportive approach to parenting which involves

  • Relinquishing control, allow children some freedoms.
  • Taking time to learn what each child's unique interests and abilities are, and from this learn to
  • Trust a child's judgement of their own capabilities.
  • Make positive appraisals, of their child's risk-taking (rather than instilling an undertone of doubt).
  • Take a chance, every now-and-then, throw caution to the wind and let the child test their capabilities.

These studies suggests that a parent who provides autonomy support during the child's early years, becoming sensitive to a child's interests and abilities and taking the role of a guide and a mentor, rather than being over protective/restrictive (i.e., authoritarian) or show little to no interest (i.e., permissive) can be a big part in guiding healthy risk-taking in childhood and may also set the stage for healthy risk-taking in adolescence as well.

Another way healthy risk-taking can be fostered in young children is through risky play. Risky play is characterised by experimenting with uncertainty, challenges and facing fears (Brussoni at el., 2018), and can involve elements such as speed, heights, using potentially dangerous tools, near-dangerous elements (e.g., fire, water, cliffs) and the possibility of becoming lost (Sandseter, 2009). In an effort to foster risky play, Mahoney et al. (2017) compared the behaviour and risky play of children whose school playground was furbished with moveable items (e.g., hay bales, milk crates, pool noodles, wooden planks, plastic sand/swimming shells) to that of children who had the use of a playground only with fixed elements (e.g., monkey bars, swings, slide etc). While the activities children engaged in were fairly similar at both types of playgrounds, the researchers observed the quality of play was much richer at the playground which fostered risky play: there was a wider range of activities which were primarily initiated by the children themselves, social interactions such as collaborations and negotiation on games were much more amicable (the children collaborated to use the sand shell like a toboggan on a gentle grass slope and lined up to take turns). Inversely, behaviour in the playground with only fixed components was characterised by more hostile interactions such as bullying, rough-and-tumble play and the majority of children's time was spent negotiating rules and terms of engagement on activities, and activities were often initiated by a supervising teacher (e.g., an organised sport like soccer). A similar randomised control trial was conducted across 12 Australian primary schools, where items such as car tyres, fabrics and milk crates were added to playgrounds for 11 weeks, while a concurrent two hour 'risk reflection' intervention was offered to teachers, school staff and parents focusing on the risks and benefits of free play (Engelen et al., 2013). While accelerometer data showed a significant increase in the physical activity levels of children with access to the enhanced playgrounds, the efficacy of this interventions was attributed to the flexibility of the additional playground items, allowing children to maintain an engaging level of challenge in their play and the supervising teachers allowed more and different types of activities to take place (Engelen et al., 2013). These studies provide encouraging accounts of, not only, how more versatile playground equipment can foster healthy risk-taking in the form of risky play, but also the accompanying benefits such as increased physical activity and more creative and amicable social interactions.

Case Study: If Alexa's mum was warm and attentive (i.e., authoritative) as a parent, Alexa may have had the opportunity to take risk from a young age, learn her own personal limits and know what she is capable of. Now that she is off on a snow trip with her friends, knowing her personal risk-taking boundaries, Alexa could make healthy choices: pushing her self to maintain social standing with her friends but knowing her limits enough not to let herself be hurt. If her friends did offer he alcohol, she may have the strength to say no or maybe try a little and stop before any harm is done.

Fostering healthy risk-taking behaviour in adolescence and young adults[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. High ropes course provides a perceived risk for learning.

As children become adolescents and young adults their dopaminergic system is remodelled and risk-taking behaviour are suggested to increase due to the cross over of the brain regions that respond to rewards, sensation seeking and social stimuli (i.e., receptive to dopamine) (Steinberg, 2008). To foster healthy risk-taking in adolescents and young adults it may be useful to provide situations that cater to both their sensation, reward and social stimuli sensitivity. Urban skate parks may be such a situation which fosters healthy risk-taking in adolescents. From a sociology point of view, Dumas and Laforest (2009) made an assessment of the health risk and benefits of 11 skate parts in Montreal, Canada. The authors suggested that while dominating medical and clinical approaches to public health policy formation are responsible for skate parks association with risk, the actual risks (of injury) are quite low (Dumas & Laforest, 2009). During 35 days of observation, only 31 injuries occurred across the 11 skate parks, among them two fractures and 2 serious sprains were the only injuries that required medical attention. Further qualitative interviews with skaters found that skate parks provided a place to gain social acceptance through athletic, aesthetic and stylistic performances in front of peers, a place where where older skaters were able to share life advice, social support and casual skateboarding coaching (e.g., know personal limits, not underestimating difficult jumps, master basics before progressing to big jumps) to younger skaters. Between the lessons provided by falling and the social nature of skating, the results of the study suggest that skate parks could naturally foster healthy risk-taking behaviour. Outdoor education also provides a situation that often combines sensation seeking and social stimuli in which healthy risk-taking can be fostered in adolescents. A recent qualitative study examined the long term influence outdoor education experiences had on university students when they were 21 and 22 years old (Wigglesworth & Heintzman, 2020). From retrospective interviews the authors found that during activities such as rock climbing, students had to trust peers to belay them (i.e., physical and social/emotional risks), and this experience, beyond the participant's comfort zone, was perceived to influence how they faced challenges later in life. Another participant recalled the activities in the outdoor education experience called for good decision making and judgements of risks (Wigglesworth & Heintzman, 2020). Both of these studies describe situations that play on adolescents and young adults heightened sensitivity to sensation seeking, reward and social stimuli which may be perfect to foster healthy risk-taking.

Case Study: Alexa's mum may be best to allow her to go on the snow trip. It offers the perfect combination of social and novel sensation stimuli that could be important for her at the age of 16. Although there is a risk that she could be hurt and offered alcohol, there are many factors that offer benefit and support. Alexa could secure a place in a friendship ground that could be supportive way into the future. Older students on the trip and ski instructors may be sources of guidance and support that mitigate physical injury and peer pressure. The experience of risk and adventure also has the potential to positively effect Alexa for life.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Risk-taking appears to be tangled up in many aspects of our lives and in some instances risk-taking should be encouraged in order to obtain important benefits. It is important to keep in mind that risks and risk-taking is subjective (i.e., risk is in the eye of the beholder) and risk-taking is both motivated by and in the service of social factors. While there is a wide array of evidence suggesting healthy risk-taking can and should be fostered, much of the literature reviewed here did not define or operationalise 'healthy risk-taking' directly and a lot of the research conducted used qualitative and observational methods. This highlights the need for future research on this topic to employ more robust research methodologies. Despite the extant literatures limitations, there are still some interesting points to take away:

Take away messages[edit | edit source]

  • Healthy risk-taking is making a choice to approach challenging, novel and scary tasks which have the potential to benefit the risk-taker.
  • Stepping outside our comfort zone to engage in healthy risk-taking is suggested to have many benefits. A snowboarding mentor of mine once said "I try to scare myself a little bit everyday" (Straatmans, T.).
  • Parents are integral in fostering healthy risk-taking in their children. Take on an authoritative parenting style, get involved in their lives, let them test their abilities progressively. What scares you, may exhilarate and empower them.
  • Starting young with healthy risk-taking may bolster better decision making in the face of risks throughout the rest of ones life.
  • In adolescence, risk-taking seems to be driven by sensation seeking and social contexts. As a parent, do not let it scare you. Why not foster it? Take you children and their friends on novel adventures like horse riding, surfing lessons, go-carting, theme park rides. Teach them to cook, open up the tool shed and help them build a skate ramp or a dirt jump for their bikes.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Brailovskaia, J., Schillack, H., Assion, H.-J., Horn, H., & Margraf, J. (2018). Risk-taking propensity and (un)healthy behavior in Germany. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 192, 324–328. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2018.08.027

Brussoni, M., Brunelle, S., Pike, I., Sandseter, E. B. H., Herrington, S., Turner, H., Belair, S., Logan, L., Fuselli, P., & Ball, D. J. (2015). Can child injury prevention include healthy risk promotion? Injury Prevention, 21(5), 344–347. https://doi.org/10.1136/injuryprev-2014-041241

Brussoni, M., Ishikawa, T., Han, C., Pike, I., Bundy, A., Faulkner, G., & Mâsse, L. C. (2018). Go Play Outside! Effects of a risk-reframing tool on mothers’ tolerance for, and parenting practices associated with, children’s risky play: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials, 19(1), 173–173. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13063-018-2552-4

Conte, A., Hey, J., & Moffatt, P. (2011). Mixture models of choice under risk. Journal of Econometrics, 162(1), 79–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeconom.2009.10.011

Cooke, M., Wong, S., & Press, F. (2020). High quality educators’ conceptualisation of children’s risk-taking in early childhood education: provoking educators to think more broadly. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 28(3), 424–438. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2020.1755499

Dumas, A., & Laforest, S. (2009). Skateparks as a health-resource: are they as dangerous as they look? Leisure Studies, 28(1), 19–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/02614360802334898

Engelen, L., Bundy, A., Naughton, G., Simpson, J., Bauman, A., Ragen, J., Baur, L., Wyver, S., Tranter, P., Niehues, A., Schiller, W., Perry, G., Jessup, G., & van der Ploeg, H. (2013). Increasing physical activity in young primary school children — it’s child’s play: A cluster randomised controlled trial. Preventive Medicine, 56(5), 319–325. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2013.02.007

Hansson, S. (2018). Risk. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/risk/

Mahony, L., Hyndman, B., Nutton, G., Smith, S., & Te Ava, A. (2017). Monkey bars, noodles and hay bales: a comparative analysis of social interaction in two school ground contexts. International Journal of Play, 6(2), 166–176. https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2017.1348319

MSU Extensions. (2016 June 22). Healthy risk taking [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUu-rCCPCA0&t=40s

Niehues, A. N., Bundy, A., Broom, A., & Tranter, P. (2016). Reframing healthy risk taking: Parents’ dilemmas and strategies to promote children’s well-being. Journal of Occupational Science, 23(4), 449–463. https://doi.org/10.1080/14427591.2016.1209424

Olivari, M. G., Cuccì, G., Bonanomi, A., Tagliabue, S., & Confalonieri, E. (2018). Retrospective Paternal and Maternal Parenting Styles, Regulatory Self-Efficacy and Adolescent Risk Taking. Marriage & Family Review, 54(3), 282–295. https://doi.org/10.1080/01494929.2017.1403990

Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. (2021). Risk. Oxford Learner's Dictionaries https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/risk_1

Sandseter, E. B. H. (2009). Characteristics of risky play. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 9(1), 3–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/14729670802702762

Shoham, R., Sonuga-Barke, E., Aloni, H., Yaniv, I., & Pollak, Y. (2016). ADHD-associated risk taking is linked to exaggerated views of the benefits of positive outcomes. Scientific Reports, 6(1), 34833–34833. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep34833

Should teens do extreme sports? Big-thrill activities like snowboarding and rock climbing are skyrocketing in popularity. Do these sports teach healthy risk-taking--or put precious futures in jeopardy? (2016). Scholastic Choices, 32(2), 2–.

Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 78–106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2007.08.002

Weber, E., Blais, A-R., & Betz, N. (2002). A domain-specific risk-attitude scale: measuring risk perceptions and risk behaviors. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 15(4), 263–290. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.414

Wigglesworth, J., & Heintzman, P. (2020). A qualitative study of the perceived significant life impacts of a university summer outdoor education course. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2020.1854097

Wilson, H., & Adelson, J. (2010). Parenting perfectionists: Encouraging healthy risk-taking for risk evaders. Parenting for High Potential, 13–.

Zinn, O. (2016). “Living in the anthropocene: Towards a risk-taking society.” Environmental Sociology, 2 (4): 385–394. doi: 10.1080/23251042.2016.1233605.

Zinn, J. O. (2019). The meaning of risk-taking - key concepts and dimensions. Journal of Risk Research, 22(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2017.1351465


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