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National Gambling Board

South African Responsible Gambling Foundation


  • Overview
  • Psychology of Risk Taking
  • Pathological Risk Taking

Let us start by looking at this presentation on risk and probability which we will then discuss below.

PDF   Presentation:  Risk - is it in you?


Risk taking is part of all of our lives everyday. Although risk can technically be defined as “ concerning the expected value of one or more results of one or more future events” and is therefore neutral – the future event could be negative or positive – in everyday use we tend to focus only on the negative. If your feet are cold and you put on your slippers you “risk” your feet getting warm for example – this usage would sound very strange; however if we said you run the risk of your slippers being wet and therefore not warming your feet, it sounds much more natural. We all assess the risk of everyday actions such as crossing a busy road for example. Much of this assessment is completely unconscious – life experience has taught us that it is necessary to assess potential risks all the time.

We tend as a whole to avoid situations that we fear and will hesitate to take what we perceive as a frighteningly high risk, Most  people rely on their fear and hesitation to keep them out of the most profoundly unknown situations. As we all know, however, and as we shall look at in more detail below, certain people actively seek high risk situations and activities.

In The Gift of Fear, (1997 Dell; Random House NY) Gavin de Becker argues that "True fear is a gift. It is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of danger. Yet unwarranted fear has assumed a power over us that it holds over no other creature on Earth. It need not be this way."

Risk  therefore could be said to be the way we collectively measure and share this "true fear"— this consists of a mix of rational doubt, irrational fear, and a set of  a variety of biases from our own experience (for example, if you have once been bitten by a dog, you are likely to see approaching a strange dog as more risky than someone who has only had positive experiences with dogs).  As the quote above suggests, risk undoubtedly played a role in terms of evolution.  If our ancestors had not risked for example  playing with fire or facing up to fierce predators, this life would not exist!

As we shall see people vary enormously in their willingness to take risks. Risk taking, like many human behaviours, falls on a continuum, with the exceptionally risk averse people at one extreme and the  actively risk seeking people at the other.  What we are going to look at , amongst other aspects of risk, is whether those extreme risk takers are being driven, much like addicts are, to seek thrills –are they adrenaline junkies literally?


Video This video is an interesting discussion about genetics
and the neurophysiology of risk-taking individuals.


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1.1.1. Facts and Figures
We all know that risk taking behaviour and consequences can be measured. Smokers for example know that their chances of dying from lung cancer are higher than those of non-smokers.  Below are some facts and figures based on life (and death) n the USA.

The odds of serious risks

SOURCES: all records from 2002

Risk of Dying next year in transport accidents:
Pedestrian 1 in 47,273
Pedal Cyclist 1 in 375,412
Motor Cycle Rider 1 in 89,562
Car occupant 1 in 17,625
Occupant  of pick-up truck or van 1 in 67,182
Travelling in heavy transport vehicle 1 in 631,450
Occupant  of a bus 1 in 6,696,307
Riding horse or animal drawn vehicle 1 in 244,180


If you look at the Table above, you can see that the chances of getting killed when riding a motor cycle are more than four times greater than if you are in a car in the USA.


Click on the following link to have a look at a constantly changing Table of Facts and Figures related to death and risk.:-
Constantly changing Palings Scale Of Risk


Point to Ponder
Statistically, flying in an aeroplane is safer than being the occupant of a car. Despite this many people fear flying. Why do you think this is so?


We should also be very aware that  certain risks are very dependent on environmental and socio-economic factors. Look at the Table below and see the large discrepancies between for example, the risk of dying in childbirth in Europe and that in Africa – think for a few minutes about why this would be so.

Table showing Relative Risks per Region


Likelihood of Mother Dying During Childbearing
In Developed Regions of World  1 death per 5000 live births
In Europe 1 death per 4167 live births
In Latin America and Caribbean 1 death per 526 live births
In Asia  1 death per 303 live births
In Africa  1 death per 120 live births
Lifetime Risk of Death in Childbearing (Includes risk per pregnancy and likely number of pregnancies.)
In North America  1 in 3750
In Europe 1 in 1895
In Latin America & Caribbean  1 in 150
In Asia 1 in 105
In Africa 1 in 15



As government regulators all over the developed and developing world scramble to rush through legislation, from banning smoking to insisting on the wearing of seat belts and crash helmets in order to protect their citizens against taking unnecessary risks, the leisure pursuit of danger  in these areas is a growth industry with mountain climbing the USA’s  fastest growing sport.

Extreme skiing which is when skiers descend cliff-like runs by dropping from ledge to snow-covered ledge is becoming more popular in the USA.  Sports like paragliding and cliff-parachuting are also rapidly becoming leisure choices for an increasing number of people whilst  the adventure-travel business, which usually combines activities such as climbing or river rafting with wildlife safaris, has burgeoned into a multimillion-dollar industry  So why are more and more people seeking thrills – that is,  engaging in high risk behaviour?

In conventional psychology, personality theory holds that people are inherently inclined to avoid tension and stress. In psychoanalytical terms, a person who repeatedly engaged in high-risk behaviour such as extreme mountain climbing would be seen as having a death-wish which masked other underlying anxieties and feelings of inadequacy,  Some high risk takers will acknowledge that their participation in these very risky activities does feel as if there is an element of addiction in their pursuit. . One extreme climber , Jim Wickwire who repeatedly engaged in high risk extreme mountain climbing, even after several near-death experiences and having seen several comrades killed had this to say:- . "The people who engage in this," Wickwire says, "are probably driven to it in a psychological fashion that they may not even understand themselves."

In similar vein, another participant in extreme climbing, Richard Gottlieb believes climbing has helped him cope with his fear of death: "We open the door, see the Grim Reaper right there, but instead of just slamming the door, you push him back a few steps."


Video The video below further explores new research
looking at how the brains of high risk-takers function


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Mainstream theories about individuals having a desire to avoid tension started being cautiously challenged in the 1950’s as research was hinting at alternative explanations. The psychologist Hans J. Eysenck developed a scale to measure the personality trait of extroversion, which is now seen and accepted as one of the most reliable predictors of an inclination towards risk taking. Other studies began to demonstrate that contrary to the Freudian psychoanalytical model, the brain actually craved arousal. Over the next thirty years, these findings spawned new theories about risk taking

Professor Farley from Wisconsin University and past President of the American Psychiatric Association sees risk taking more as a whole personality type. We are familiar with the classification of Type A and B personalities but Dr Farley adds Type T, for thrill seeking. He breaks Type-T behaviour into four categories: T-mental and T-physical, to distinguish between intellectual and physical risk taking; and T-negative and T-positive, to distinguish between productive and destructive risk taking. As we shall see below risk taking can be very negative indeed both for the individual concerned and society.

A leader in looking at the biological roots of risk is psychologist Marvin Zuckerman at the University of Delaware. He produced a detailed profile of the high-sensation seeking (HSS) personality. HSS individuals, or "highs," as Zuckerman calls them, are typically impulsive, uninhibited, and social. They enjoy high-stimulus activities, such as loud rock music or pornographic or horror movies, yet are rarely satisfied by vicarious thrills. Some level of actual risk--whether physical, social, or legal-seems necessary. Highs tend to be heavy gamblers. They may experiment with drugs and would tend towards sports like skiing or mountain climbing. Highs also show a clear aversion to low-sensation situations, or what we may more prosaically refer to as boredom.


Video Watch this video for an intriguing case-study
of a high risk-taker and the theory about this


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There is also increasing evidence which shows that due to the action of the neurochemical dopamine in the brains of individuals, the brains of thrill seekers actually do perform differently to those of risk averse people.

An extremely interesting article, entitled “Dopamine, Wall Street and Financial Meltdown”  which clearly explains how dopamine works in the brain can be found at:

So as we can see, as with most character traits, high risk-taking individuals are an amalgam  of environmental factors; brain chemistry and as in the case of the extreme climbers we have mentioned; skill and training.  We mentioned that high risk takers could also be labelled in one theory as positive or negative. We will look at the negative side below.

"There is nothing more empowering than taking a risk and succeeding"
Dr Frank Farley

As we have seen risk taking behaviour is a fascinating subject for anyone who has ever been amazed by someone’s seeming lack of fear in facing the most terrifying odds.

As research into risk taking behaviour has advanced it has also shown the darker side of risk taking behaviour.  High-risk takers become bored extremely easily and therefore might tend to suffer low job satisfaction. Of more concern for society and their families is that their constant craving for stimulation can make them more likely than risk averse people to abuse drugs, gamble, commit crimes, and be promiscuous. In other words high risk takers may really struggle to derive meaning, purpose and pleasure from day-to-day activities.

The increasing penchant for high risk sports and pastimes is a peculiar feature of highly developed cultures. The inability of high risk takers to derive much of meaning from routine may explain this phenomenon. In nations at war or in dire financial straits where survival is challenging the inhabitants seem to seldom seek additional risk taking activities. It would however seem logical that in highly developed and thus highly safety conscious countries, ordinary life may seem dull and too predictable.

Point to Ponder
Why do you think that the populations of countries at war or experiencing hunger, disease and poor shelter would not seek further risk taking activities? Please give reasons for your answer.

The Journal Psychology Today (Jan 2010) states that:
“In an unsettling paradox, our culture's emphasis on security and certainty--two defining elements of a "civilized" society--may not only be fostering the current risk taking wave, but could spawn riskier activities in the future. "The safer we try to make life," cautions psychologist Michael Aptor, Ph.D, a visiting professor at Yale and author of The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement, "the more people may take on risks."

Risk taking becomes pathological when it morphs into criminal behaviour which is harmful to society; or into extreme risk taking behaviour that harms the individual and his or her family and friends, such as drug addiction or compulsive gambling.

Gambling is of course a particularly potent example as the activity itself is predicated on risk – the outcome in gambling or games of chance is by definition unknown.

Adolescence is a time of pushing boundaries and experimentation but research shows that harmful and therefore, problematic, if not pathological, risk taking starts young, as the  box below shows:


Adolescent risk taking almost always starts early
  • Alcohol. 40% of adult alcoholics report having had their first alcoholism-related symptoms between ages 15 and 19.

  • Gambling. 10% to 14% of adolescents engage in problem or pathologic gambling, and gambling typically begins at age 12.

  • Automobile crashes are the leading cause of death among North American adolescents; both sexes ages 16 to 20 are at least twice as likely to be in a motor vehicle accident as are drivers ages 20 to 50.

  • STDs. Each year, 3 million U.S. adolescents contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD). HIV infection is the seventh leading cause of death for Americans ages 13 to 24

  • Sexual activity. Adolescents are more likely than adults to engage in impulsive sexual behaviour, to have multiple partners, and to fail to use contraceptives. Younger teens (ages 12 to 14) are more likely to engage in risky sexual practices than older teens (ages 16 to 19).

Increasingly research shows that pathological risk taking is associated with psychopathology as well as addictive personalities. Below is an extract from an on-line article which expresses this well and clearly:

In the risk taker's brain, researchers report in the Journal of Neuroscience, there appear to be fewer dopamine-inhibiting receptors — meaning that daredevils' brains are more saturated with the chemical, predisposing them to keep taking risks and chasing the next high: driving too fast, drinking too much, overspending or even taking drugs.

Previous research on psychopathy has focused on what these individuals lack—fear, empathy and interpersonal skills. The new research, however, examines what they have in abundance—impulsivity, heightened attraction to rewards and risk taking. Importantly, it is these latter traits that are most closely linked with the violent and criminal aspects of psychopathy.

"There has been a long tradition of research on psychopathy that has focused on the lack of sensitivity to punishment and a lack of fear, but those traits are not particularly good predictors of violence or criminal behavior," David Zald, associate professor of psychology and of psychiatry and co-author of the study, (testing whether excess dopamine leads to high risk-behaviour) said. "Our data is suggesting that something might be happening on the other side of things. These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward—to the carrot—that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick." “

So we can see that risk taking can be doing something extraordinarily challenging and experiencing a great sense of achievement as a result. This drive may even account for why we have made progress since we first crawled out of our caves.  It can also unfortunately be something which when carried to excess lands the individual risk taker in an extremely tenuous position. and has severely  deleterious effects on both society as whole and on families and friends of the pathological risk taker.