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More PsychNotes: Personality

Risk is a Matter of Perception: What is Risk to You?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

sky-diving over mountains
Recently, a woman said to me when learning what I do, “I wish I could start my own business.” When I asked “Why don't you?” she responded, “Oh, no, that's too risky.” When I asked, “What's the worst that can happen?” she viewed the worst possibility as losing everything and being homeless.

Thinking about that exchange I realized that I think it is too risky not to pursue my dreams. I don't want to take the risk of being old and gray reminiscing, “I wish I had done that.”

Sure, risks I have taken sometimes cost me money or time or even caused physical injuries (karate) but the bigger risk that always looms before me is having wasted my life. Whenever I am faced with a decision and potential risk, I ask myself, “Will you regret not having tried?”

But this also made me think that people have different definitions of risk. Each person has different dreams, desires, and goals so risk becomes defined by their personal agenda. For instance, I am not a social risk-taker but it is not my goal to have lots of friends or be the life of the party. I will, however, take social risks if it helps me achieve other important goals in my life such as promoting a business project.

Types of Risk-taking

Several categories of risk-taking have been identified (Weber et al., 2002). However, even within these categories there may be differences in risk attitudes depending on personal goals and desires. For instance, in the financial category a person may be willing to risk a year's salary on a business venture but is not willing to risk a day's salary gambling at a casino.

1) Ethical/moral. Are you willing to risk your principles or go against societal moral norms? Sometimes with ethical dilemmas people may be willing to risk one principle for another. For instance, they might be willing to steal if it can save a life. But others may not be willing to take an ethical risk no matter the circumstance.

2) Financial. What types of financial risks are you willing to take? Are you willing to take a calculated risk on a business deal? Or, do you only invest safely? Do you like the risk of gambling for a big gain? Are you willing to risk financial security to help someone else?

3) Health/safety. What sorts of health risks are you willing to take? Do you risk your health or safety for a thrill? Do you focus on taking care of yourself physically—exercising routinely and eating healthy? Are you willing to risk your safety if it means saving someone such as your child? Are there aspects of your health or safety that are more important than others?

4) Recreational. What kind of risks do you take for fun? Do you tend to take competitive risks or do you prefer cooperative recreational activities? Is it more important to have fun even if it may mean risks in other areas of your life such as financial or safety?

5) Social. What sorts of social risks do you take? Do you state your opinions without concern? Do you enjoy groups of people? Or, do you prefer to have quiet conversations with a friend? Do you tend to be a leader in some circumstances but not in others?

These questions are not an exhaustive list, but if you examine the categories you may find that most people are risk-takers in some way but it depends upon what is important to them. For instance, the woman I mentioned earlier who probably doesn't think of herself as a risk-taker appears to me to be a social risk-taker. She doesn't mind speaking in front of groups or saying what is on her mind. She takes on leadership responsibilities. But she probably doesn't think of that as risk. Similarly, since I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, I don't think of calculated business ventures as risk.

Risk is a matter of perspective. For most people, it is probably not accurate to say “I'm not a risk-taker” because when it comes to what is important to them they may be willing to take a risk. Also, sometimes attitudes change as we age so that someone who was willing to take physical risks when they were younger may be more aware of the consequences as they grow older. Or experience makes some things seem less risky because we can judge the degree of risk better.

So, he question is not “Are you a risk-taker?” but “What type of risk-taker are you?”

Weber, E. U., Blais, A. -R., & Betz, N. E. (2002). A domain-specific risk-attitude scale: Measuring risk perceptions and risk behaviors. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 15, 263–290. DOI:10 .1002/bdm.414

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