Halloween & Exploring the Psychology of Risk

Halloween is a great time to be challenged by your fears and to take risks! The spooky excitement of this week got me thinking of the many people who make it their business to jump out of airplanes, drive in car races or risk thousands in the stock market. Why is risk a year-round way of life for some, while for others it’s all about avoiding risk at all cost?

The psychology of risk assumes that there are different kinds of risks. For some, risk-taking reduces boredom. For others, it’s a means to an end — a necessary evil in order to gain something better. Risk arises from a wide array of motivations and incentives.

One type of risk taker is the sensation seeker. They need the rush they experience when doing something dangerous; from mountain climbing and skydiving to drugs and gambling to day trading in the stock market. Risks can be reckless (such as drugs), or reasonably undertaken (as with the relative safety of organized car racing). But sensation and excitement are the motivation for all.

Interestingly, risk-taking personalities are the exact opposite of those who suffer from depression. Clinically depressed people hold negative assumptions about virtually everything. They assume that it’s not possible to get what you want in life; that people are not to be trusted, and that no matter how careful they are, their endeavors won’t turn out well. Conversely, risk takers minimize the possibility that things might not go well, and focus on what might go well. Depressed people focus on luck or fate. Risk takers are more concerned with exercising control over their environment.

Seeking that rush can be reckless. Some people drink too much and drive like maniacs. Cautious risk takers approach extreme hobbies such as surfing, skiing, skydiving and gun collecting with intelligence and responsibility. The difference? While some blindly go by the seat of their pants, rational risk takers plan for and try to guard against the attendant dangers. Intelligent risk taking is mentally healthy. “No pain, no gain” actually means, “No risk taken, no possibility of gain.” I spend a lot of time trying to convince clinically depressed people to think more like this.

Marvin Zuckerman, Ph.D., a researcher commenting on risk in Psychology Today, agrees. “Although risk taking has negative aspects…, it is a positive force as well. Without risk, humanity would stagnate; there would be little impetus for discovery.” He’s right. Every forward step in history involves someone taking a risk. What’s true for mankind is equally true for individuals: In order to accomplish something we want, we have to take chances. If we don’t, we’ll never know if we could have achieved our goal.

You want a nicer house? Or a medical degree? Or a new romantic partner? Then you figure out how to go about it. If you discover you can’t, then you have to accept reality. But if you can, you proceed without letting fear hold you back. Risk takers trust their intelligence to figure out what does and what doesn’t make sense. And then they act. Depressed people become paralyzed with fear, never progressing into the realm of action. Foregoing all risks, they’re rewarded with nothing more than paralysis and depression.

Risk gets a bad name because it gets lumped with sensation-seeking. But they aren’t the same. Diving out of airplanes and the like are fine for people who pursue these activities intelligently and rationally, but they are far from being life requirements. On the other hand, neurotically avoiding reasonable day-to-day challenges can be an even greater risk to your psychological health. Oh, and while you’re at it, Happy Halloween!


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