Researching why people take risks

By Dale Johnson Posted: March 22, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Dallas Novakowski (left) works with psychology student Alyssa Adams on muscle testing, as part of his research into risk-taking behaviour.
Dallas Novakowski (left) works with psychology student Alyssa Adams on muscle testing, as part of his research into risk-taking behaviour. Photo: U of R Photography

Are you a risk taker or are you cautious?  

Do you always stay under the speed limit, or do you risk getting a ticket or being in an accident by speeding? Do you keep your money in a savings account, or risk it on the stock market?

The topic of risk taking – and how it is tied to a person’s perceived skills, abilities, and resources – is the topic that a University of Regina researcher is looking into. Dallas Novakowski, a master’s psychology student, has received research funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Novakowski is one of 34 students at the U of R who have received funding from the federal bodies that provide research funding - SSHRC, as well as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

“Often we generalize and say ‘Someone is a risk taker’ – meaning that they’re going to be more likely to take all sorts of risks, in all areas of life: academics, sports, or even criminal behaviour,” explains Novakowski. “There’s some evidence that if you take risks in some areas, you’re more likely to take risks in a lot of other areas, too.”

Novakowski is conducting research into new information about risk. “Something that is just starting to be recognized is what’s called ‘domain-specific risk taking’ – the idea that we take risks in only very specific areas.”

For example, a person may drive in a risky manner, yet be very risk-averse when it comes to studies or career changes. They may parachute, but not risk losing money at a casino.

“For my honours thesis last year, we looked at individual traits such as strength, intelligence, attractiveness and co-ordination in relation to domain-specific risk taking,” Novakowski says.

He looked at what’s called ‘pro-social’ risk taking: doing something heroic – but risky – for the good of a larger group. There’s also ‘non-anti social risks’ – which include such things as extreme sports.

“We’re looking at characteristics such as strength, intelligence, and attractiveness and how they affect a person when it comes to taking risks,” he says.

“We found people are more likely to take pro-social and non-anti social risks the more that they believe they are strong, smart and good looking,” Novakowski explains. “We theorize that they do a cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether to take action, and because they see themselves as strong and well-coordinated, they figure, for example, that if they go into a burning building to try to rescue people, they’ll be able to pull it off.”

The next phase of his research is to get a more objective sense of people’s abilities by bringing them into his laboratory.

“We’re going to take pictures of them, measure their facial symmetry – which is associated with attractiveness – and conduct tests of co-ordination, strength and intellectual abilities. Then we’ll have a more objective sense of how these attributes affect people when they’re dealing with risk,” Novakowski explains.

“It may be that people are willing to engage in such behaviours just because they see themselves as stronger and more attractive - not because they actually are.”

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