Ever had a conversation like that with a friend when you’ve been out socializing for the night? Chances are that you’ll yield to your friend’s persuasions and get behind the wheel, ignoring the small voice of reason inside your head that’s warning you’re about to do something stupid.
So if we know something is a bad idea, why do we do it anyway? Why don’t we choose to hang out with somebody who would give us better advice and encourage us to engage in less risky behavior? It’s a complicated answer that relates to the way our brain works and how we interact with those around us.
Can you “catch” risk-taking behavior?
A recent study from the California Institute of Technology suggests that risk-taking behavior may in fact be contagious.
According to the Caltech website, researchers had 24 volunteers participate in three types of trials. The first was a “self” trial in which they chose between getting a $10 payoff or gambling to get a potentially higher payoff. In another trial, they observed risk-taking behavior, which showed them how a peer took risks. In the third trial they were simply asked to predict whether or not someone would take a risk. They did not observe any risk-taking behavior.
The researchers found that the study participants were more likely to gamble for a higher reward if they had observed others taking that kind of risk. They called it a “contagion effect.”
“By observing others behaving in a risk-seeking or risk-averse fashion, we become in turn more or less prone to risky behavior,” said Shinsuke Suzui, the study’s primary author.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging during the trials to look for indications of risk-taking behavior in the brain. They found that when people took a risk or observed others taking a risk, certain areas of the brain (the caudate nucleus) became more active. The brain didn’t show that same level of activity when people were simply predicting if someone would take a risk.
The study helps explains why people who watch others doing risky things (like DUI) are more likely to do the same things themselves. “Our findings provide insight into how observation of others’ risky behavior affects our own attitude toward risk,” said Suzuki.
In the genes?
In an article in Psychology Today, Marvin Zuckerman, psychology professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, suggested that many people (especially young college students) who engage in risk-taking behavior may just be trying to be sociable. He and another researcher studied college students engaged in risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking, drugs, reckless driving, gambling and unsafe sexual behavior. They found that several types of behavior, notably smoking, drinking, sex and drugs, were found in tandem. Students who did one were more likely to do the others. Drinking and reckless driving were linked in the same way.
The researchers also found that high risk takers—both men and women—scored high on specific personality traits, including sociability, impulsive sensation-seeking and aggression-hostility.
Zuckerman also noted, however, that other studies have shown that risk-taking is genetically linked. He noted that comparisons of identical and fraternal twins raised in the same family found that sensation-seeking (or risk-taking) is about 60 percent genetic. That’s higher than for other personality traits.
Dr. Cynthia Thompson, now a teaching fellow at Quest University in Canada, was able to trace risk-taking behavior to small section of the DRD4 gene. According to an article in the New York Times, she looked at skiers and snowboarders between the ages of 17 and 49, asking them to fill out a questionnaire about their on-slopes behavior and to take a personality test. The volunteers also agreed to a cheek-swab test for DNA typing.
Thompson found that a certain variation on the gene was linked to a person’s willingness to take risks on the slopes. The linkage was slight but statistically significant. While this isn’t the only reason for risky behavior, it could be a factor in explaining why some people are more likely to engage in it.
Evolutionary psychologist Andreas Wilke at Clarkson University says there’s also a biological factor in risk-taking. In an article on LiveScience.com, he notes that men advertise their sexual fitness to potential mates by taking risks.
Testosterone helps drive the risk-taking behavior. Wilkes says that although testosterone levels go down with age, a newly-divorced man—potentially on the lookout for a new mate—will experience a rise in testosterone levels and a corollary rise in risk-taking behaviors.
Birds of a feather
If you’re a risk taker you’re more likely to surround yourself with friends who are risk takers as well. According to a study in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology it’s not true that opposites attract; we’re more likely to be attracted to people who are like us.
The researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas who conducted the study found that the people don’t change to be like each other over time. Instead, they are attracted to each other (both romantically and as friends) based on how alike they are at the start of the relationship.
“You try to create a social world where you’re comfortable, where you succeed, where you have people you can trust and with whom you can cooperate to meet your goals,” according to Angela Bahns, assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley. “To create this, similarity is very useful, and people are attracted to it most of the time.” She said that selecting others similar to us is “so common and so widespread on so many dimensions that it could be described as a psychological default.”
Bahns says while it can be comfortable hanging out with similar people, we need to challenge ourselves in our relationships as well. “You also need new ideas, people to correct you when you’re loony. If you hang out only with people who are loony like you, you can be out of touch with the big, beautiful diverse world,” she said.
So if you like to engage in risky behavior—like taking illegal drugs or drinking and then getting behind the wheel—the chances are good that your current friends may think that’s acceptable behavior as well. Maybe it’s time that you actively seek out some new friends who view life (and risk-taking) in a different light. These friends might help you avoid taking unnecessary risks…or at least offer to serve as the designated driver if you’ve had too much to drink to drive safely.
Another strategy you can use to limit dangerous risky behavior is to plan ahead. Your thought processes and your impulse control are not at their best when you’ve been in the bar drinking all night. Make an agreement with your friends ahead of time that you’ll take a taxi or call Uber when you’re ready to go home.
If you’re hosting a party for your risk-taking friends, plan on cutting off the alcohol early—several hours before the party ends. Stock up on the snacks, too, so that they’re not drinking on an empty stomach; make it substantial, because food both fills you up and helps absorb alcohol. Finally, plan on having some overnight guests…it’s better for people to crash at your place then to go out on the road when they’ve had too much to drink. Their risky behavior would not only put their own lives in jeopardy, but also the lives of others. That’s a risk that you should not consider taking.