Shark sighted: I think I’ll go for a swim!

Shark sighted: I think I’ll go for a swim!

Risk-taking has a bad reputation. Although it’s natural to be concerned about the high levels of risk-taking among young people, with adverse consequences including death and injuries, we shouldn’t forget that risk-taking can also have a positive side.

The ‘shark sighted today: Enter water at your own risk’ sign is a pretty common sight on Australian beaches. Coming from Europe, seeing this sign on a day when I had planned to go swimming is enough to prompt me to revert to plan B. However, this does not hold for many others. Often enough you see people continuing with all kinds of activities – snorkeling, surfing, or swimming – right there where a shark has been sighted. “Just a bunch of risk-takers?” I ask myself. Or is there more to it than that?

There is a vast body of research on adolescent risk-taking, with an increasing number of findings in recent years linking risk-taking behavior to brain development (see previous psychology blogs). A prevalent view on risk-taking is that it is reckless behavior – dangerous, maladaptive –and should typically be avoided. This is related to the fact that risk-taking has often been associated with negative, unhealthy, or disadvantageous outcomes. However, risks can be functional, especially given the developmental tasks of a specific period of life, as they provide individuals with opportunities to explore boundaries and alternatives, to develop self-identity and autonomy. From the mid-teens to the early 20s, particularly, there is an increased preference for novel and intense situations. Empirical research has so far linked this developmental change to a range of reckless and hazardous behaviors, but this might present a biased view. Think of traveling to study abroad, asking a stranger out on a date, or standing up for one’s beliefs in the face of opposition, for instance? These are all perhaps risky behaviors that entail a certain amount of uncertainty, but can be considered developmentally appropriate or even desirable, especially for emerging adults.

Researchers asked a group of young adults whether they take risks and what their reasons are for taking them or avoiding them. About half of the participants indicated that one should weigh up the consequences of risks, about a third held a positive view of risks and thought one should always take them, and the remaining minority indicated that risks are bad and should be avoided at all times. Interestingly, those who held a ‘full endorsement’ view of risks were younger than the other groups of participants.

And what about the reasons for taking risks? The respondents gave four main reasons for taking risks. Listed in order of increasing frequency, they were:
1. Satisfaction: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.
2. Avoid missing out: “You never know when you’ll have the opportunity again.
3. Achievement: “Risk it to get the biscuit.
4. Growth: “As long as it helps me experience my full potential.

Nobody would deny the valid reasons for concern about high levels of risk-taking among young people that may lead to adverse consequences, including death and injuries. However, there seems to be a need to focus also on the positive sides of risk-taking. More specifically, it is important to develop measures to assess adaptive and developmentally appropriate risk-taking.

And when it comes to swimming with sharks: I’d say it’s probably wise to weigh up the pros and cons …