Factors Associated With Risk-Taking Behavior

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Risk-taking behavior refers to the tendency to engage in activities that have the potential to be harmful or dangerous. This can include misusing alcohol, binge drinking, taking illicit substances, driving under the influence, or engaging in unprotected sex. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that these behaviors increase the risk of unintentional injuries and violence.

This article discusses the causes of risk-taking behavior and explores some examples of behaviors that pose a risk to health and well-being. It also covers some of the factors that increase the risk of risk-taking and what you can do to get help.

Causes of Risk-Taking Behavior

There are a number of reasons why people might engage in risky behaviors. Understanding some of these reasons can often be helpful when it comes to addressing them.

Thrill-Seeking

Given that risk-taking behavior is potentially dangerous, some people wonder why anyone would take part. On one hand, the behavior puts those who engage in it in harm's way. On the other hand, it gives participants the chance to experience an outcome they perceive as positive.

Risk-taking behaviors such as driving fast or substance use, for example, may lead to car accidents or overdoses, respectively. In the moment, however, they may bring about positive feelings such as the thrill of a fast ride or the high one gets from drug use.

In some cases, people might also engage in risk-taking behaviors simply because they enjoy the thrill or adrenaline rush that comes with it. These people are often referred to as "thrill seekers," and they might take risks even when there is no real benefit to doing so.

Social Influences

Risky behaviors can sometimes be a way to gain social approval or acceptance. Peer pressure, for example, can play a significant role in risk-taking behaviors. If someone sees their friends or peers engaging in risky behaviors and wants to be accepted by them, they might be more likely to engage in those behaviors.

This is often particularly true during adolescence, when teens often feel that conforming to their social group is particularly important. To a certain degree, taking risks is a normal part of growing up.

Teens often engage in some amount of testing their abilities and exploring limits as they forge their own identities. It becomes problematic when it risks a child's health and well-being.

Mental Health

Certain mental health conditions can contribute to risk-taking behaviors. For example, individuals with ADHD are sometimes more likely to engage in risky behaviors because they tend to be more impulsive. People who have bipolar disorder might also be more likely to take risks during a manic or hypomanic episode.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is in and of itself a risky behavior, but using alcohol and other substance can also contribute to additional risk-taking behaviors. People might be more likely to engage in risky behaviors when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is because of the impairments in judgment that come with intoxication.

Recap

There are many different reasons why people might engage in high-risk actions. As with many other types of behaviors, genetic and environmental influences often influence how likely people are to experience these types of behaviors.

Examples of Risk-Taking Behavior

Risk-taking behavior can include a range of behaviors. Some carry more serious consequences and in some cases, may involve the occurrence of more than one high-risk behavior at the same time. Some examples of risk-taking behaviors that people may engage in include:

  • Criminal activity such as stealing, vandalism, or trespassing
  • Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Engaging in dangerous driving, such as street racing or texting while driving
  • Engaging in extreme sports that have a high risk of injury or death
  • Fighting
  • Gambling, often betting more than they can afford to lose
  • Having sex with strangers
  • Having sex without protection against sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies
  • Sexting or sharing sexually explicit content on social apps
  • Skipping school
  • Tobacco use 

Even when risk-takers engage in widely practiced behaviors, such as drinking or smoking cigarettes, they put their lives at risk, as deaths associated with these behaviors are higher than deaths associated with illicit drug use. But risk-takers tend to ignore the consequences of their behaviors.

Who's at Risk for Risk-Taking Behavior?

There are a number of factors that may make it more likely that people will engage in risky behavior.

Age

Age can play a role in how likely a person is to engage in risky behaviors. Teens and young adults, for example, are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors than older adults.

The adolescent brain is still developing and maturing. As a result, young people are more impulsive, more likely to take risks, and less likely to consider the consequences.

Risk-taking behaviors often peak in the teen years and decline with age as people become more risk-averse.

Sex

Sex can also have an impact on risk-taking behavior. Some research indicates that men tend to be more likely to be risk-takers than women. This difference may be influenced by hormones, particularly testosterone, that are linked to risk-taking behavior.

Additionally, social factors like the pressure to conform to gender norms can also play a role. For example, men might feel pressure to take risks to appear "masculine" while women might feel pressure to avoid risk-taking to appear "feminine."

Genetics

Genetics play a role in risk-taking behavior as well. Identical twins separated at birth, for example, tend to engage in risk-taking behaviors at high rates.

Personality

Certain personality traits may also influence risk-taking behavior. For example, people who are more impulsive, sensation-seeking, or adventurous are more likely to take risks.

While some research has suggested that men are more risk-taking in general, one study found that both male and female risk-takers share the same personality traits, such as impulsive sensation-seeking, aggression-hostility, and sociability.

Mental Health Conditions

Certain mental health conditions, such as PTSD, may also contribute to an increased risk for risk-taking. A 2012 study of 395 military veterans with PTSD found a link between risk-taking behavior and the disorder. In addition to the above forms of riskiness, vets with PTSD have a propensity for firearms play, potentially endangering their lives.

People with PTSD may have already survived dangerous situations, and risk-taking behavior may give them the feeling that they have more control over their present danger than the danger that led to them developing PTSD.

Getting Help

If you find yourself engaging in risky behaviors such as drug abuse, anonymous sex, or gambling, it's time to get help. Risk-taking behavior may cause you bodily harm, result in you contracting a sexually transmitted infection, or lead to financial losses that you can't recover from without some heavy lifting. 

It's unwise to toy with your well-being in this way. A psychotherapist can help address the underlying causes that might be contributing to risk-taking behavior. You can also find a support group for people who are going through similar experiences.

Social support is also important, so consider confiding in a close friend or family member who can try to hold you accountable when you feel the urge to engage in risky behaviors. 

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7 Sources
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