Health Saw · November 7, 2021

Healthy Risk-Taking

Some biologists say that between 15-20% of the animal kingdom are sitters. They are defined as having a passive temperament – “slow-to-warm up” to their surroundings, and “often sitting on the sidelines observing.” The other 80% of animals are rovers. The have a more aggressive temperament, making them more engaged with their environment and motivated to take action. Biologists are finding that both personality types have their evolutionary advantages depending on the situation

David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist from Binghamton University, did a couple interesting experiments with sitters and rovers. In one study, he put metal traps in a pond of pumpkinseed sunfish. The rovers, being more active, were the first to check out the traps. Consequently, they were also the first ones to be caught. The sitters, because they were more likely to sit on the sidelines, were impossible to capture using these traps.

However, in another experiment, Wilson transported all the fish to a new environment. He found that the rovers were most likely to begin investigating their new surroundings and finding food. Due to this, the rovers began eating five days before the sitters started. In this example, it was the rovers who were most likely to survive.

In some cases, the sitters’ passiveness directly led to their survival (especially when their passiveness helped to avoid a dangerous situation). But during other times this passiveness actually hurt their ability to adapt to new surroundings when necessary.

“Just Do It” vs. “Look Before You Leap.”

In a lot of personal development literature we hear the mantra, “Just do it!” Take the common example of diving into a cold pool. Often, when we try to go step-by-step, the coldness becomes that much more unbearable. This can actually inhibit us from adapting to the temperature fast enough to act and fully immerse ourselves into the water. Sometimes it’s easier to just “jump in” and get it over with. This is when the common attitude of a rover becomes most beneficial.

A less popular phrase in personal development is “Look before you leap.” This strategy is different than “Just do it.” It means we take a step back and evaluate our situation more carefully before diving in. Take for example addictive behaviors like gambling or sex. If we always act impulsively (automatically, without thinking) then we tend to engage in these risky behaviors without inhibition. Then we are more likely to end up with an empty bank account or an STD.

Thinking and doing need to be balanced.

Sometimes “thinking” gets a bad rep. We hear of people planning and contemplating ideas all day, but never doing anything productive about them. Maybe we want to approach a girl at a bar, thinking of all the things we want to say, but then we over-analyze the situation and cripple ourselves from ever approaching. In these kinds of cases, too much thinking can turn out to be a bad thing. For some people it is very easy to get “stuck in their heads” and never step into their bodies.

On the other end of the spectrum, too little thinking can often cause us to be foolish or reckless. If we never think about the consequences of our actions, then we may neglect something important and pay the costs later. People who live impulsively (with no projection of the future) tend to not have very positive futures, because they fall into mistakes that they could’ve avoided by being a little more thoughtful and cautious.

Smart risk-taking.

The balance between thinking and doing is going to largely depend on what you are trying to achieve.

As I mentioned earlier, approaching a girl at a bar may be something that is easier to “just do.” What is the worst that can happen? You’ll say something stupid and embarrass yourself? You’ll get rejected? Maybe worst-case-scenario you get slapped?

The risks and costs are relatively minimal, so there is little sense in worrying about it. Yet, some people never face this anxiety because they convince themselves that this minor embarrassment is the worst thing in the world. That’s not smart risk-taking – that’s dumb risk-avoidance. You’ll probably never see the girl again and she’ll forget about the experience by the end of the week. Don’t make a big deal out of nothing.

The same goes for jumping into cold pools.

Of course, there are other situations we may find ourselves in where the potential risks and costs are much greater. Like investing your retirement funds. That is something that is worth deliberately thinking about and making sure you go over every detail before making your decision. Making a mistake here could cost you all the money you’ve saved over the years – that’s a biggie. That’s when you need to act smarter, minimize the loss of risk, and try to play it more safe. Acting impulsively with your savings is a disaster waiting to happen.

Anxiety and uncertainty.

All risk is a result of uncertainty. The future can be somewhat predictable, but we can never quite know what will happen. It is often this uncertainty that causes us to experience anxiety before choosing a course of action.

Anxiety is a type of forward-thinking – it looks into the future and sees where things may go wrong. We feel anxious before giving a public speech because we don’t know if it will go over well or if we might embarrass ourselves.

The same is true for any other kind of social anxiety or performance anxiety.

Of course, some anxiety is good. Distinguishing “good anxiety” from “bad anxiety” is an important part of smart decision-making and risk-taking. Sometimes anxiety is an important signal that we should not follow a particular course of action because the potential consequences are too great. Sky diving is going to typically make us more anxious than petting a bunny because the risks of sky-diving are much higher. When people develop “irrational” fears about bunnies, that is usually a sign of an unhealthy phobia – because the fear doesn’t necessarily match the risks.

Mundane activities (like tying your shoes or taking a shower) don’t usually elicit much anxiety because they are more familiar, and therefore you go in with greater certainty of how the event will unfold. Only if someone has a bad experience in a shower will they develop that anxiety and uncertainty that the bad event may repeat itself.

Does your anxiety match the risks?

As I mentioned before, anxiety is often deemed “irrational” if it doesn’t match the potential risks. Some people are afraid of being in the same room as mustard, even when they understand that it poses no real threat. Anxiety may mismatch with risks depending on a number of things: unfamiliarity of an experience, a faulty belief system, or a traumatic experience.

Some unhealthy anxiety can be overcome by trying to change our thoughts (like in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy). We can reframe our perspective by looking at a situation from a different angle.

Sometimes we put too much importance on the present moment, but miss the bigger picture.

Let’s go back to the approaching a girl at a bar example. In the moment, you may know that it will completely SUCK if the girl rejects you and embarrasses you in front of your friends. You’ll be the laughing stock for the rest of the night.

But if you zoom out and see the bigger picture, you often realize that this event isn’t as important as you were making it out to be.

Imagine yourself 90 years old looking back on your college experiences at the bar: are you really going to care that 70 years ago some girl poured beer on you, or slapped you in the face, or told her friends your cheesy pick-up line? Probably not. In fact, you’d probably have more regret if you never took those little risks in the first place. Those little mistakes are what make your life richer (and besides, you now have good stories to tell your grandchildren!)

This is one simple example of how reframing your perspective can give you the freedom to take these little risks. Because they’re just that – little risks. And although in the moment you may experience a little pain and discomfort, in the end these short-term costs can often lead to long-term gratification.

Too risk-avoidant.

When individuals become too risk-avoidant, they are chronic “sitters” – always sitting on the sidelines, never doing anything, and never taking any chances with their life. As we know, sometimes this temperament can be quite beneficial, but other times it inhibits us from adapting to life in a more effective way. It inhibits us from personal growth.

Even when we try to avoid risk-taking altogether, it is something that we can’t completely avoid. Every time we don’t act, we risk losing opportunities to improve our lives. On your death bed, you may find that you regret all those times you didn’t take risks. “What ifs” can haunt you, and sometimes it is better to try something and fail (and fail) than to never try at all.

In the end, healthy risk-taking is about balance.

By the end of the day, I think it is clear that we need to find a balance between risk-seeking and risk-avoidance. We should try to identify times where we should be more cautious and safe in our decision-making, but also identify other times where the risks may be worth taking.