Many see risk-takers as silly and foolhardy, as lacking insight. Others portray them as brave, adventurous, and praiseworthy. My position is rather different. I see risk-taking as a normal part of our behaviour, moreover one that is a necessary component of our lives. Indeed, risk-taking is so important to human-kind that, without it the human race would not have developed as it has. It was, after all, through risk-taking that homo erectus came to stand up and that homo sapiens travelled the world. It would have been through risk-takers that we discovered which foods to eat and how to master the use of fire. In the same vein, it has been risk-takers who have determined our society. So, it was through a risk-taker (Gandhi) that India gained its independence; through another (Emily Davison) that UK women achieved suffrage sooner, and another (Rosa Parks) that racial segregation in the USA finally crumbled. 

But while much (classical) risk taking relates to physical risk, there is also emotional risk – look no further than to the risks involved in getting married or divorced. And then there are intellectual risk-takers, for example Socrates, Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza and Voltaire, and more recently and differently Aung San Suu Kyi.

Whatever the risk, it seems inevitable that at one level or another the risk-taker realises that what they do brings with it risk, that they will be moving into an unknown area where they may be at least damaged or disadvantaged. However, during the episode itself, they probably do not see themselves really at risk and, anyhow, they view the advantages of taking the particular risk (the goals to be achieved) outweighing the status quo. In general it is others who are concerned about the risk, who are worried about the risk-taker’s well-being, and who warn the risk taker against such action Interestingly, people who take risks do not do so in all spheres, so someone who takes physical risks (say, a rock climber), may not dare take intellectual risks (so stand up in a lecture theatre and challenge audience’s views).

For the most part, I believe that the act of risk-taking has inbuilt rewards, and indeed this is essential if risk-taking ultimately offers an evolutionary advantage. There will be feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, or sometimes relief; perhaps the sentiment that the act was, or will be, worthwhile; possibly the feeling that not taking the risk would make life unbearable (not worth living). And all these rewards are also captured in games or activities that essentially simulate risk-taking, so from bungee-jumping and grand prix motor racing to gambling; to bidding in bridge and then playing the hand; or to decision making by those wrapped in an interactive video game. And interestingly, as though to underline the universality of risk and reward, note how people flock to watch, and vicariously participate in, risk-taking.  Witness the gasps of anticipation by the crowd when as the tight-rope walker or acrobat appears to miss their footing, the nail-biting as the chess player contemplates the next move, then cheers of delight and relief when all is over.  

Notwithstanding the grander examples of risk taking, in our own ways we take risks all the time, physically as we run that bit faster, swim out that bit further. Intellectually, as we speak our mind, challenge the views of others, criticise the boss/a colleague/a spouse/ones children, question the establishment’s values, or simply say or do something original. In any of these intellectual acts we open ourselves up to criticism, unpopularity, exclusion, ridicule, marginalisation etc. But since risk-taking has hereditary advantage it is more likely to be a feature of the young (where competitive advantage matters), than in old people where differences play little part in species survival. It is my contention that if we are to feel more ‘alive’ as we age, risk taking should once again become part of our lives.

Put it another way, mellowing with age has its disadvantages.

One thought on “A risky business

  1. You’re right in many ways but you overlook the risk takers that were not in the end for the good of all or instead took the risks and either died or in trying to save millions were blinded by there hopes to kill thousands. Risk takers did try that first berry or sail that first sea, but they also started that first war or invented that killer virus. Like the whole good or evil, we are only really after the fact of things able to say they were for the good if we are the winners. I very much doubt the Saxons would have been impressed by the risk taking Normans to invade and rule Britain or that those left to live on Hiroshima ever thought to thank those risk takers helping to discover the road to a nuclear bomb. Please unstand i agree that we need risk takers to invent, to travel, to lead and to create. But not all risks are for the best, some are infact either very stupid or very nasty.

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