Why do people take risks

About the courage to take risks

What would you do if you weren't afraid? This is the question psychologists ask when someone is having difficulty making a decision about the future. Because they know: fear paralyzes. This strong emotion is part of the basic human evolutionary set for good reason. It should help us not to think too long in dangerous situations, but to act quickly. In situations that are perceived as threatening, the neurotransmitter norepinephrine allows us to react in the brain at lightning speed - but at the same time switches off large parts of the cerebral cortex. Risks are underestimated or overestimated in such a situation. Rational decisions are hardly possible any more.

Risks also mean opportunities

Hence the question: what would you do if you weren't afraid? This question changes the way we look at what we understand as risk. Because originally the term “risk” doesn't just mean danger or harm. It means: happiness and unhappiness, negative and positive effects of a decision are not only in our hands. The renowned risk researcher Gerd Gigerenzer sums up this spectrum of meanings as follows: A risk can be a threat or a hope. Since all influencing factors are never known, every decision is accompanied by a risk. Or, as the saying goes: where there is a risk, an opportunity is usually not far away. Nothing ventured nothing gained.

Without the willingness to take risks, there would be no innovation, no progress - no chance to shape the future actively and constructively. The Austrian sociologist Helmut Schoeck analyzed the greatest risk of our time in the fear of taking risks. An analysis that applies today more than ever: In a complex, globally networked world, we have to make more and more complex decisions ever faster, and recognize, classify, control and manage risks, both large and small.

Learn to deal with risks

In order to make good decisions that are not largely guided by irrational fears and apprehensions, Gigerenzer argues, we have to differentiate between the terms risk and uncertainty: we can recognize, analyze, evaluate and control known risks with logical and statistical thinking . However, we have to endure the uncertainty, i.e. the fact that some risks will always remain unknown to us.

So the bad news is that risks and uncertainties cannot simply be ignored or banished from life entirely. The good news: people can learn to deal with risks competently and intelligently. With the right tools, you can dare to take decisions and take responsibility, limit dangers and open up opportunities. In short: risk behavior can be learned. Risk researchers like Gigerenzer even advocate teaching risk literacy at schools and universities. In a modern society it cannot be that many people cannot classify statistics and probabilities correctly and have never learned how to competently and rationally assess and control risks, criticizes Gigerenzer.