Life is uncertain. Whether you’re competing for a mate, for food, or for territory, many of the human behaviours we’ve inherited from our ancestors entail a certain degree of risk.
In this day and age it’s unlikely that your life will depend on being able to spear that bison or mate with an eligible lover, however our hard-wired drives still exert strong, often subconscious influences on the decisions we make and the actions we take in daily life.
Pleasure vs pain
For instance, as a rule of thumb, we tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s easy enough. But what about those times in which you’ve had to risk something in the short-term (pain) in order to win over the long term (pleasure)? What’s the relationship between risk and success?
And what factors can help you make smarter choices, so that you can maximise your chances of succeeding, while being able to learn from your mistakes?
In this blog series I’ll be writing one article a month exploring the hidden psychology behind winning, risk-taking and longer-term success. We’ll explore how your personality influences your hard-wired tendencies and more malleable traits, and we’ll discover how you can learn from (and leverage) tips and tricks from people who are at the top of their game.
To kick us off, let’s take a sneak peek into why we take risks…
What risks do you take?
Whoever you are, and wherever you’re from, there are many ways in which you take risks – from crossing a busy street with your head buried in your phone, to taking a punt at a charity auction. Sometimes you’ll take these risks un-knowingly, while at other times you’ll make calculated decisions involving skill, patience and strategy.
Whether you’re into competitive sports and racing, or card games and chess, whatever the context, there are certain key factors that influence how and why we take risks.
Let’s start with your personality…
You’ll have probably heard of the MBTI and so on, but when it comes to personality traits (they’re fairly fluid, and can change throughout your lifetime), the golden standard that psychologist tend to use is the Five Factor Model , also known as the ‘Big 5’.
Although all research and psychological models have their limitations, studying risk-taking and personality in a scientific way (using this model) can yield really rich insights and give us tools that we can use to help us succeed more efficiently, whatever we’re doing.
For instance, past research has found that risk-taking (along with ‘non-planning’ and ‘liveliness’) are all correlated with extraversion , so those of us most likely to score highly in this trait are also most likely to take risks.
If you also rate highly in excitement-seeking, chances are you’ll be open to trying new experiences (that may or may not be dangerous), and you’ll also have a tendency to enjoy and pursue activities that are thrilling . This explains why you’ll tend to find high-scorers among the mountain climbers and bungee-jumpers of this world. Low scorers on the other hand, are much more likely to avoid risk and danger altogether.
The literature in this area is huge and exciting, and over the coming months we’ll dive more deeply into the fascinating, hidden world of the psychology of winning…
I’m looking forward to sharing the journey with you!
 McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. Jr (1990). Personality in adulthood. New York: Guilford.
 Eysenck, S. B. G., & Eysenck, H. J. (1977). The place of impulsiveness in a dimensional system of personality description. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 16, 57-68.
 Whiteside, S.P., & Lynam, D.R. (2001). The Five Factor Model and impulsivity: using a structural model of personality to understand impulsivity. Personality and Individual Di€fferences, 30, 669-689.
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