Why Do We Take Risks?

By Ruth Hinkle, Spirit & Place Festival Intern

I was researching this year’s theme when I stumbled across a TIME magazine cover story on RISK from 19991. I thought it was interesting that TIME  published an entire story that explored why we take risks. The author, Karl
Taro Greenfeld, suggested that Americans increasingly engage in “risk-related behaviors” because our everyday risks are already minimized. We live, for the most part, isolated from pandemics like polio or smallpox, with fewer infant deaths and higher life expectancy, and without the looming Cold War threat of
mutually assured destruction. With these “uninvited” dangers diminished, Greenfeld asked, “Are we somehow incomplete as people if we do not taste that terror and excitement on the brink?”

“Americans increasingly engage in “risk-related behaviors” because our everyday risks are already minimized.”

Some of his arguments rang false to me. Then I realized something important: I was eight years old in 1999. Clearly, so much has changed since then! Do we view risk in the same way that people did in 1999? In 2001, and again this past week, we came face to face with terrorism.  Now in 2013, we are coming out of an economic recession where many struggled to make ends meet. Do brushes with terrorism or economic hardship allow us to take bolder risks because we don’t want to miss “living” or because we have nothing left to lose? Or do we become more cautious?

Other factors besides these may play a role. In a recent study2 conducted by Vanderbilt University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, scientists explored whether or not some people are biologically pre-disposed to be risk-takers. They believe that people who take more risks have fewer regulators for the neurotransmitter dopamine, “the brain’s feel-good chemical.” So when risk-takers ride a rollercoaster or skydive, for instance, they get more out it which prompts them to seek similar experiences.

“Do brushes with terrorism or economic hardship allow us to take bolder risks because we don’t want to miss “living” or because we have nothing left to lose”

Beyond these factors, are humans inherently risk-seeking or risk-averse creatures? Is it just a personality quirk that some of us crave the adrenaline rush while others avoid it?
This article piqued my curiosity. I have so many questions I’d like to ask. Mull it over for a few minutes and tell me what you think in the comments. I’d love to get my brain cells fired up even more about any of the questions above.

And really, that’s what we’re all about at the Spirit & Place Festival: getting people fired up about the questions that are relevant to our communities and cultures. We’ll seek the answers to such questions about RISK during our 18th annual festival which will take place November 1-10.  Follow @spiritandplace for festival updates.


  1. Greenfeld, K.T. (1999, September 6). Adventure: Life on the Edge. TIME.  Retrieved from Academic Search Primer (EBSCO).
  2. Park, A. (2008, December 30). Why We Take Risks—It’s the Dopamine. TIME.  Retrieved from http://ow.ly/jQJIT

Ruth Hinkle is an IUPUI student who interns for @spiritandplace & @SAVIonline. She reads marketing blogs and fantasy novels in her free time. She celebrates Nerdfighteria and listens to 80s music at work. Follow @ruth_hinkle on Twitter!

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Take Risks?

  1. I believe, from personal experience, that we are all wired at birth to be risk-takers, but that some of us (through woundings and other hurtful events in our lives) learn to avoid taking risks so that we won’t get hurt again, while others try taking risks to get the adrenaline rush. Adrenaline can be an addiction, and those of us who take risks want the feeling(s) that attend the risks. It makes us feel alive. Americans and Western Europeans do have less stressors in their lives, such as is experienced by many other cultures in the world (such as starvation, war, bombings, disease, racial profiling and genocide, daily physical and/or sexual abuse).

    With myself, I make provocative art on purpose to make wave, to upset the status quo and to stimulate dialogue. I’ve been censored a few times, have been kicked out of two churches, have been called a number of names I won’t repeat here, and have been shunned by some who’s brains are closed off to change or different points of view to their own. I may not like some of the things that have happened to me, but I seem to thrive artistically from the conflict. I make my best and most impactful artwork in the midst of the conflict.

    • Thanks for the great response! I’m interested in your theory that we are taught to be risk-averse through our own experiences but are inherently risk seekers. I’m glad that you shared your own connection to risk through art and conflict. I tend not to think of myself as someone who lives “life on the edge,” but I do crave constant change in my environment. It can be as simple as re-arranging my furniture or as difficult as making “crossroads” decisions about my life.

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