I recall visiting an amusement park as a child that featured two roller coasters—one of adult size and a smaller one intended for younger riders. I so envied the kids who were having such fun. I really wanted to join them, but at the same time, I was scared to do so. After much angst and self talk (“You can do it!”), I finally climbed into the seat and the cars began to move, at first slowly, and then faster and faster, up and down and around. I was terrified, so much so that they had to stop the ride to let me off. To this day, I avoid taking physical risks, although I am not reluctant to undertake a task I have never done before.
Life can be risky. According to Princeton University psychologist Elke Weber, there are five areas in which we have a risk-taking tendency: financial, health/safety, recreational, ethical, and social. She argues that we have innate risk thresholds in each area partially depending on our values or how much we think we will benefit from the activity.
While age may affect our willingness to take chances, it is not the only metric. Examining risk-taking and age is more complicated than comparing young people being bold and adventurous and older individuals being more cautious, states Gregory Russell Samanez-Larkin, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University and co-author of a recent study examining risk-taking and age. Research suggests that while risk-taking behaviors are more likely to change during early and late periods of life, significant biological and cognitive changes, plus major life events such as marriage and retirement, affect our inclination to take chances.
Most of us do not think about the implications of the behavioral decisions we make. To discover how inclined you are to taking chances, reflect on a few of the risk-taking areas identified by Weber and decide how likely you are to make risky choices.
For example, consider the long-term consequences of the decisions we make that impact our health and safety. Data indicates that when we maintain a relationship with a health care provider and follow wellness screening and vaccination guidelines, we are more likely to remain healthy as we age. On the other hand, those of us who choose to disregard or delay such recommendations face greater health risks. We jeopardize our safety when we talk on a handheld cell phone while driving, speed, choose not to wear a seatbelt or life vest, or engage in activities that are increasingly hazardous as we age such as climbing tall ladders and cleaning gutters.
Sometimes the benefits of an action justify a higher risk. Some individuals may be reluctant to join a group because they fear not being accepted. Yet, the desire to belong may outweigh their hesitancy.
Hopefully, you have gained a better understanding of how willing you are to take chances—or take risks. To risk or not to risk is the question. You decide.
Linda Henry writes regularly on topics related to aging, health care, and communication, and is the co-author of several books, including Transformational Eldercare from the Inside Out: Strengths-Based Strategies for Caring. She conducts workshops nationally on aging and creating caring work environments. Her volunteer emphasis is age-friendly communities.