Your Brain On Risk
Assuming you’re an adult, your brain makes around 35,000 individual decisions every single day. You can bet a lot of them involve taking some kind of risk. To cross the road, or not to? To carry an umbrella, or not to? To sleep in an extra 10 minutes, or not to?
Life, you could argue, is a series of calculated risks. It’s not a bad thing. Great opportunities often come from risk-taking. Risk is fundamental to financial and insurance markets. It affects decisions that essentially drive the global economy. Sports, games, gambling – they’re all about risk. Taking risks shows confidence and helps us stand out. We also learn from risks, and embracing them helps us overcome our fear of failure.
And behind it all is the wonderful and mysterious thing we call the brain. Let’s get a little more acquainted with it, shall we.
Meet your brain
Risk is processed by five key players in your grey matter team:
- The nucleus accumbens – handles risk-averseness, releases the feel-good chemical dopamine, and regulates the ‘reward and pleasure’ centre
- The amygdala – sends adrenaline and other hormones into your bloodstream when you detect risk
- The ventral tegmental area – handles cognition, motivation and intense emotions related to pleasure
- The prefrontal cortex – manages reasoning, decision-making and executive control
- The hypothalamus – regulates endocrine glands and organs, and helps us process fear
The real MVP here is dopamine, which is what conditions us to do the things we need to survive, including taking risks. In fact, the more dopamine we get, the more willing we are to take risks.
Does your gender affect risk-taking?
Countless studies show that it does. For example, men have been found to be twice as likely to take risks in the workplace than women. They’re also three times more likely to take risks when crossing the road, and a lot more prone to being late when travelling. Why? Experts point to genetic-shaping through evolution: early men had to take risks to fulfill their role as hunter-gatherers, while the women's cautious approach would have helped hold their families together.
What about your age?
Yes, risk-taking is affected by how old you are too. It’s down to purely biological reasons: the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for our judgment, does not fully develop until we turn about 25. It’s no surprise then, that teenagers and young adults take way more risks than any other age group, whereas the older we get, any risky business gets more and more subdued.
Feel like you know your brain (and yourself) a little better now?
Excellent. For easy future reference, we’ve also created a nifty infographic exploring our risk-taking/denying brains in a bit more detail, which you can check out below.