Playing with Fire-- Why People Engage in Risky Behavior

Gin Lane, William Hogarth (1697-1764); Courtesy: McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library For a teenager, sneaking a beer is one thing; shooting up heroin is quite another. Missing a parentally imposed curfew is almost expected; disappearing for days is heart-wrenching. There is risk, and then there is risk. Figuring out what differentiates experimenting teenagers from delinquents and lifelong reckless hearts is not easy; behaviors typically stem from complex

Mignon Fogarty
Jan 26, 2003
Gin Lane, William Hogarth (1697-1764); Courtesy: McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

For a teenager, sneaking a beer is one thing; shooting up heroin is quite another. Missing a parentally imposed curfew is almost expected; disappearing for days is heart-wrenching. There is risk, and then there is risk. Figuring out what differentiates experimenting teenagers from delinquents and lifelong reckless hearts is not easy; behaviors typically stem from complex social, environmental, and biological interactions. Even defining risky conduct can be difficult.

"Often, individuals [engaging in risky behavior] don't think what they are doing is risky," explains Angela Bryan, an assistant professor of psychology, University of Colorado. "We all think we aren't going to get in an accident or we won't get [a] disease. That is very adaptive; if we were terrified every time we went out the door we'd never leave the house."

Researchers who study risk-taking, particularly...