The Science of Positive Risk Taking – Charlotte Linham

September 6, 2019

There are two different types of risk-taking – negative and positive. Negative risk-taking is risk-taking that is ‘disinhibited’, whereby an individual engages in dangerous or self-damaging activities, without consideration of the consequences. This sums up the vast amount of risk-taking that we might hear about in the news. 

What often suffers from a lack of airtime is positive risk-taking.

This type of risk-taking involves consideration of both the harms and benefits, and safely taking a risk because the benefits far outweigh the harms.

Biologically speaking, risk-taking is largely reward driven. The act of taking a risk releases dopamine (a neurotransmitter related to reward and happiness) in the brain, which makes you feel good. If that risk pays off, more dopamine is released. This is the same for both positive and negative risk-taking. However, if the risk taken is positive, there is a higher likelihood it will pay off, ultimately resulting in more dopamine, which makes you feel better. This avoids feelings of guilt and shame that a negative risk might result in.

Positive risk-taking develops resilience. Taking a risk and it not paying off allows you to learn how to recover and cope with failure. The more you take risks, the more confident you will feel, and developing self-confidence is a crucial part of mental wellbeing. Taking a risk creates an opportunity to use the experience to learn: if it worked, you learn that works for next time, creating confidence. If it failed, you can learn what to do differently, whether that risk would work in another context, and you can learn how to deal with the failure.

Developmentally, positive risk taking is important. In children, it improves awareness of risk, and minimises negative risk taking throughout life. It also allows children to learn to think introspectively, which can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. Social risk-taking is particularly critical – without it, children and adolescents fail to socialise and learn ‘socially acceptable’ behaviours from their peers. This results in isolation, associated in turn with several detrimental effects on mental health. In adolescents, positive risk-taking fosters a sense of self, and a growth of independence. Lack of positive risk-taking in adolescents could result in suboptimal brain development and maturation, which may have knock on effects on mental health. 

Positive risk-taking helps in so many aspects of day to day life – it improves your social life, widens your circle of hobbies, increases your coping skills, helps you work more effectively, strengthens your resilience and builds self-confidence. Your mental health will improve because of all of these, so if you do deal with hardships later in life, you’ll be more able to manage them.

Factoring positive risk-taking into your life clearly has so many benefits. So, how should you go about doing it?

The first thing to note is that what constitutes a risk to you is completely personal. Not only does it differ between individuals, it could differ depending on the time of day, or year. Often, post-25 years old (approximately when your brain is finished maturing), people will find it a lot harder to take risks. This is why starting taking positive risks at a young age is good – it gives you the confidence to keep taking risks, which could benefit you in your career, hobbies or personally later in life. 

Starting off small is often key, potentially with risks you can take in your own home – trying a new food or calling a friend instead of texting them. Read a book in a genre you wouldn’t normally. Try a different way of working – use different coloured pens for different types of information. Once you’re comfortable taking small risks, try bigger ones – try a new fitness class, or take up a hobby you haven’t tried before like painting. These risks won’t always pay off, as is the nature of a risk, but taking them anyway and learning from them is important in order to grow as a person.

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