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

Jan 27, 2003
Mignon Fogarty
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 in the context of HIV infection, also struggle to find clear definitions. "You can't put shooting up with drugs and having sex with your husband in the same ballpark," says Mitch Katz, San Francisco's public health director. Many married people use no protection and society does not consider that risky, but if a partner injects drugs, a line gets crossed. "Early in the [AIDS] epidemic, one of the things we learned about women was that they were much more likely to become infected from their steady partners than their casual partners, because they were, from a medical standpoint, taking higher risks," he explains. But Katz does not necessarily put those people in the same category as high risk-takers, such as those who engage in backstreet racing or abuse alcohol.

Katz says that drug use--another peril-pusher--puts people at great risk of HIV infection: "There are a lot of reasons people start using drugs, but the reason they continue is always the same: addiction." Researchers may view HIV exposure through drug use as courting danger, but an addict's reasons can differ from those of drug-free risk-takers. "After a while, with the addiction, that is all that matters to them. In those people I would say that risk-taking is the wrong word; they stop caring." Katz also points out that sexual behavior is frequently dictated by issues of intimacy and the desire for closeness. Risk-takers in search of emotional ties through sex are less likely to engage in other kinds of chancy behavior.

THREE HYPOTHESES Not everyone who puts themselves in jeopardy can be categorized as risk-takers, like those who flagrantly break traffic laws or commit crimes. Researchers are trying to learn what makes danger flaunters tick. One hypothesis: People who take perilous paths are psychologically different. Terrie Moffitt, University of Wisconsin psychology professor, studies antisocial behaviors such as crime and violence, and says good evidence exists for a risk-taking personality. "On personality tests, [risk-takers] not only score high on impulsivity and low on things like conscientiousness and self-control, they also tend to score very high on the tendency to have negative emotions [such as anger and jealousy]," says Moffitt. Adds Bryan; "People who think more about their future are more likely to protect themselves now." She also notes that one's confidence in the ability to do certain things, such as buying condoms and discussing their use with a partner--a trait psychologists call self-efficacy--is important for choosing safe behaviors.

But Moffitt also points out that personality cannot be the whole story. "The problem is that differences between individuals and their personality ought to pretty much stay the same throughout their lives, but we know that risk-taking behavior is much more common for teenagers, so there is also an age angle," she says.

This developmental hypothesis is multifaceted and still under investigation. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that peril-pushing gets harder as the years pass. "We can't expose ourselves to AIDS, because we are less attractive and people aren't queuing up to have sex with us," Moffitt jokes. She is quick to point out, however, that although drug abuse has no age limits, young people still take more drugs than adults. Another simple explanation for age-related risk-taking: As people accumulate bad experiences, they lose their sense of invulnerability.

Other researchers say that the recently created maturity gap--caused by people reaching puberty much earlier and yet working and marrying much later--is leaving adolescents with adult bodies but no relevant social roles, causing them to act out. Parenting may also play a role. Many studies, Moffitt says, have shown that children who are monitored by their parents are better behaved; studies have also shown, though, that good kids simply allow their parents to monitor them. "The parents' perspective that they are the ones controlling the situation is unrealistic," she says.

Researchers have tried to link risk-taking to the hormones that rage during adolescence, but Moffitt says such studies have been inconclusive. New neuroimaging technologies have shown that the brain continues to develop into the early 20s; myelin sheaths, for example, continue to grow around nerves through adolescence. "People have said that maybe the adolescent brain isn't as capable of self-control as the adult brain, but all we really know is that the brain still isn't finished in adolescence," says Moffitt.


Courtesy of AVERT (Averting HIV and AIDS World-wide) and San Francisco AIDS Foundation
 MAKING A POINT: In the early 1980s, health care groups and AIDS activists began making posters like the one above to get the anti-AIDS message across. This poster hit the streets in 1986.

PATHWAYS AND DRUGS Despite the complexity of risk-taking behavior, Bryan says that twin studies have revealed that impulsivity and high sensation-seeking run in families. Last year, Moffitt reported that an allele of the gene for monoamine oxidase is linked to criminal violence in young adults who were maltreated as children.1 "That finding has now put pharmaceutical companies on the trail of what is going on with that neurotransmitter [in behavior]," says Moffitt. Molecular geneticists have also linked genes in the dopamine system to drug and alcohol dependence. "Pharmaceutical companies are working away using that information to find out if there is some pharmaceutical approach to preventing the addiction, but there are no answers," she adds.

Moffitt also points to attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a biological condition that influences perilous behavior. "ADD is an excellent example of where we do have biological evidence that some kind of deficit in the brain leads to poor [self-]control and risky behavior," she says. ADD is not a good model for the biology underlying adult risk-taking, however, because ADD is rare in young adults, in whom risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, crime, and drug use increase.

Finally, depression also correlates with risk-taking, but it is amenable to intervention that might help people avoid harm. "We looked at the mental health of young people who engaged in risky sex; one of the strongest correlates for these young people was depression," says Moffitt. This finding and those from personality studies suggest to her that one reason people might take life-threatening chances is that they have little, if any, self-esteem. Moffitt believes that more studies should be done to determine whether treating depression could reduce precarious conduct.

Mignon Fogarty (mignon@welltopia.com) is a freelance writer in Santa Cruz, Calif.

1. A. Caspi et al., "Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children," Science, 297:851-4, Aug. 2, 2002.