Your ‘risk intelligence’ decides how much of a daredevil you are

Health

Smokers may be more likely to take other risks

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If your new boyfriend smokes, will he risk your relationship for the thrill of a one-night stand? What if your accountant likes to go base jumping at the weekend – might she be more likely to take risks with your money than someone who relaxes by playing golf instead?

The answer to both seems to be yes. The most comprehensive study yet into how people respond to risk has found there is a common component that drives all types of risk-taking.

How eager we are to engage in risky activities is known as our risk preference. Psychologists consider this a key component of human behaviour because its impact on our decision-making has consequences – often dramatic ones – for so many aspects of our lives.

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Despite its importance, there is a lack of consensus over whether people’s tendency to take risks is consistent or whether it varies depending on the type of risk. To find out, Renato Frey at the University of Basel in Switzerland and his colleagues asked 1500 adults to complete 39 tests commonly used to measure risk preference in different scenarios.

Controlling for age and gender, they found that 61 per cent of the variation in an individual’s scores across the tests could be explained by a single component, with the rest of the variation explained by factors specific to the different types of risk.

G whizz

This is similar to how we understand intelligence. Because people who excel at one cognitive test tend to do so on them all, psychologists often talk about a general factor of intelligence, known as g, to explain this across-the-board performance. If you have a high g score, you are likely to do well on any type of cognitive test. But how well you do on any one test will also depend on other factors, such as you possessing abilities that are helpful for that specific test.

Frey and his team’s results suggest that people’s risk preference scores can be explained by both a general component they call R, and seven specific components that relate to different types of risk. The general component could be driven by mechanisms such as a person’s risk perception, their genetic disposition or level of understanding of risk – common factors that would apply no matter what the situation.

Specific factors such as recreational risk-taking could be explained by things like an individual’s desire for thrilling experiences, or problems with disinhibition could underlie risky health behaviours such as smoking or drinking to excess.

The existence of the general component, plus the finding that people’s R value was fairly consistent when the team retested participants after six months, suggests that risk preference should be considered an enduring psychological trait like intelligence, says Frey.

“Risk preference seems to have a core, stable component, like other personality traits, and is not something which is entirely ‘created’ in the moment as a function of external stimuli, the context or the environment,” says Matteo Galizzi at the London School of Economics.

This means we could start to explore the biological foundations of risky behaviour and use it to help people. “If you could identify someone from their genes or neural anatomy who was likely to be highly prone to taking risks in adolescence or later in life, you could teach that person to be aware of risks and the potential dangers involved,” says Frey.

Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701381

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