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Is a taste for risk hard-wired?

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in Leaders & Managers

A taste for risk, it’s becoming clear, is an important part of the gene pool. We may owe our furious pace of innovation, not to mention the survival of our species, to crazy adventurers.

Now scientists find that a taste for risk is hard-wired in about 10% of us, with thrill-seekers making up a small fraction. When researchers compare brain scans of thrill seekers and controls, the thrill seekers’ fear centers stay dark when a balloon explodes, while their pleasure centers light up. It’s the opposite for everybody else.

Thrill seekers tend to be open-minded, intelligent and curious. They invent things, pioneer new fields, compete in extreme sports, fly jets and perform brain surgery. They’re also more likely than the rest of us to fracture their skulls or get hooked on drugs.

Risky decisions are driven by three ingredients, according to neuroscientist Russell Poldrack at UCLA: (1) desire for adventure (“sensation seeking”); (2) relative disregard for harm (“stress tolerance”), aka fearlessness; and (3) impulsivity, or acting without thinking. 

So, are you stuck with your brain? The answer is no.

The bottom line is you can modify your behavior, conditioning yourself to become more or less adventurous. You can learn to keep your impulsiveness in check. If you’re anxious, you can slow your breathing when you’re scared and even modulate your adrenaline surges.

Take Steph Davis. She broke her pelvis last summer jumping off a mountain but has trained herself to control her fear through rigorous preparation. “Since I started BASE jumping, I do more assessing in advance. I make decisions ahead of time. Where’s the out? I need to organize all that before I even jump.”

And that, of course, is exactly what leaders do before plunging into new ventures. It’s that balance between responsibility and the call of the wild.

--Adapted from “This is your brain on adventure,” Florence Williams, Outside.

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