Though risk aversion has its roots in economics (with risk-seeking folks being more tolerant of chance-y monetary lotteries), risk attitudes in psychology reflect the likelihood of engaging in rewarding activities that have potential for negative outcomes, says behavioral scientist Christine Constantinople, PhD, who studies decision-making at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Neuroscience Institute. Essentially, risk-seeking people engage in those activities readily, and risk-averse folks typically don’t.
“Risk-averse people could be just as active [as risk-seeking people] but would probably choose activities with a lower potential for negative outcomes, like hiking or an exercise class.” —behavioral scientist Christine Constantinople, PhD
While Dr. Constantinople specifically cites things like substance use, reckless driving, and unprotected sex—all of which can have well-recognized consequences for the risk-taker and anyone close to them—risky behaviors can include any activity with high potential to go wrong, like, say, skydiving, whitewater rafting, or rock climbing, she adds.
Though risk-averse people may stray far from any of the activities above, that's not to say they're inactive people. “They could be just as active, but would probably choose activities with a lower potential for negative outcomes, like hiking or an exercise class,” says Dr. Constantinople.
All of that's to say, risk aversion and a boring personality don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, as a risk-averse person could have just as many interests as a risk-seeking one—but of a different sort. Instead, risk aversion tends to show up in personality traits in a far more nuanced way.
Below, experts break down the ways in which risk aversion tends to influence personality and share why it gets an unnecessarily bad rep.
How your level of risk aversion relates to your personality
It’s worth reiterating: Risk aversion does not make you an inherently boring person. “In fact, the natural human default is to have some degree of risk aversion,” says therapist and philosopher John Maier, PhD. That said, certain personality traits—both those deemed positive and negative—do tend to be more pronounced in folks who rank higher on the risk-aversion scale.
“On the positive side, if you think about the Big Five personality traits (extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism), people who are risk-averse also tend to be more agreeable and more conscientious,” says Dr. Maier. And those are key reasons why risk-averse folks tend to be less difficult, more sociable people than the big risk-takers. But, on the negative side—and here’s where the bad reputation comes in—risk-averse people do tend to be more neurotic and less open to new experiences, says Dr. Maier.
And those tendencies likely fuel the studied connection between risk aversion and anxiety. “Anxiety is, at its core, an avoidance of potential danger and a hyper-vigilance to threats in your surroundings—both of which are common in risk-averse people, too,” says clinical psychologist Jenny Yip, PsyD, founder of Renewed Freedom Center. So, a high degree of risk aversion doesn’t nod to a boring personality so much as the potential for an anxious one.
It’s also very possible that feeling anxious about diving into new things could translate into doing, well, fewer kinds of things overall. But again, that speaks more to your relationship with novelty and the unknown than it does to how inherently interesting (or boring) you might be.
Is it possible (or even wise) to become more risk-tolerant?
Similar to the Big Five personality traits noted above, risk aversion is pretty deeply rooted. While it can vary a bit with age (people tend to become more risk-averse as they get older) and with momentary “shocks”—say, becoming more risk-seeking after a certain risky move pays off—it’s mostly a stable quality, according to Dr. Constantinople.
As a result, actively increasing your level of risk aversion would take some time and concentrated effort. But before you dive in, it’s worth thinking long and hard about why you might want to grow your level of risk tolerance in the first place. “If you’re a naturally risk-averse person, and you start to change into someone who’s more risk-tolerant, that might not even be a change that you actually like,” says Dr. Maier.
According to Dr. Yip, the one instance when it would be worth your while to start embracing more risk is if your sense of risk aversion has had a negative impact on your quality of life. “If you feel as though you’re missing out on time with friends or loved ones because they’re doing this or that activity that you’re avoiding, then the benefit of being a little more risk-tolerant likely outweighs the risk of a negative outcome,” she says.
In that case, increasing your risk tolerance can look like taking small steps to expose yourself to a new thing, person, or place—starting with something that ranks at a four or five on a scale of zero to 10 for riskiness, and working up from there, says Dr. Yip. “I think we have to remember that each of our interests was initially new to us. And over time, we got more comfortable with it as we built more familiarity,” she says. “So, it’s not that some new activity or interest can’t fit within your comfort level, but more so, that you just have to expose yourself to it a few times first.”
Even so, it’s worth reiterating that risk aversion isn’t something you need to run from, nor does it make you inherently boring. Only in a situation where the trait is coming between you and your quality of life might it be worth considering a shift. Otherwise? If you’re perfectly happy avoiding most risks, that’s also perfectly fine. After all, getting into too much risky business is just that: risky.
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