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How to Hack Your Genetics to Take Better Risks

Problem: In order to do great things, you must be willing to take risks. But your ability to accept risk in your life is genetically pre-determined, and if you don’t have the right gene, then you’re “risk handicapped.”

Solution: Take advantage of the loopholes your brain provides to bypass your genetics to take smarter and better risks, giving you an advantage over the genetically gifted.

If I asked you a question right now, I’d bet $10 you won’t remember it by the end of this article.

A show of bravado like that is the beginning of many friendly wagers, but how many go unanswered?

When you have a disagreement with a friend and they ask you to put your money where you mouth is, how do you respond? If you’re one of the few intrepid (or you have an oversized ego) then you probably agree immediately.

But what about the rest of us? We respectfully decline or agree to disagree and politely move the conversation on to something else. Maybe we dismiss it as a joke or playfully ask, “Why does it always have to be about money?”

For one reason or another, we’re really uncomfortable with making wagers on things we’re not sure we’ll win.

Or are we? Every week in the United States, millions of people go to the store to trade a few hard earned dollars for a Powerball ticket, scratch-it, or some other lottery game of chance. And most research suggests the less you can afford a ticket, the more likely you are to buy one.

The potential pay-off is big, stirring dreams of a life unattainable, but that doesn’t change the fact that the 50/50 wager you just passed up with your friend was, less-than-scientifically speaking, ten gajillion times more likely to be successful than that lotto ticket more aptly named the stupid tax.

And that’s not the end of the story, either.

If you look at the statistics of the most common lottery games, it’s easy to see that not only do you throw your money away on a gamble you have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, but you actually pay a premium to do it, too. The real monetary value of a lottery ticket can be calculated, and you’d be hard pressed to find one that meets the requirements for a good buy.

Lottery tickets aren’t the only place where we take dumb risks.

  • We hang out with people who don’t embody who we want to be even though we’ll end up just like them.
  • We dismiss financial opportunities that have better odds of success than the ones we stick with.
  • And we do things we think will keep us safe when, in fact, they actually invite more, unseen risks.

To put it simply, we’re bad risk-takers and, as a result, we accidentally take more of them through our avoidance strategies.

It wasn’t always like this.

You Were Born to Take Risks (Sort of…)

It wasn’t all that long ago when survival of the human race depended on risk-taking. When you look at it objectively, it still does.

None of us can remember it, but there was a time when we didn’t have the modern conveniences we do today; we hadn’t taken the risks to create them yet.

For thousands of years:

  • If you were hungry, you had to hunt and kill an animal for food. Hopefully it wouldn’t get you first.
  • If it got too cold, you had to move your family some place warmer. Better pick the right direction.
  • If you got sick, you had to find a plant or mineral that could cure you. Does that look poisonous?

The reason we’re successful today and enjoy the lives we do is because our parents, grandparents, and everyone before them were excellent risk-takers.

In 1988, a few ecologists studied the risk-taking habits of surfperch (a small, coastal fish) by watching their feeding habits in different environments. Would they eat from a big, dense patch of algae—the most delicious of surfperch fare—if the food patch resembled one where they were likely to meet their arch nemesis, the kelp bass?

Next door to this Shangri-La was a sparse and much less appealing patch—probably the equivalent of leftover meatloaf to the surfperch palate.

Even though the safe patch didn’t contain enough food to support the surfperch school, the fish preferred to feed there, competing for scraps.

In every subsequent test they ran, the surfperch preferred the safer choice, despite the implications: lower quality food and not enough of it.

As a result, the serf perch survives in a safe but ultimately fragile state of existence. Their survival depends, for the most part, on what their environment provides them.

But not us.

We took risks and built systems that allow us to manipulate our environment. As a result, we enjoy what most of us consider a “higher state of existence.”

For most of human history we took calculated risks because our success depended on it. Today, things are a bit different. Risk-taking is no longer widely encouraged because we don’t really believe we require it to live.

By and large, we believe the opposite.

Look at widespread culture and you see that the generally accepted belief is that a better life comes from increasing our safety and avoiding risk.

Today, our most celebrated risk-takers are rarely the ones working on complicated, long-term risks. Instead, we prefer novel adventure and thrill seekers. Ask any school-age child who they know better: Gandhi (leader of the Indian Independence Movement) or Bear Grylls (British adventurer) to prove this point.

This isn’t to say Bear Grylls doesn’t provide an important service to the world, but it does suggest that we look at risk-taking differently now than we used to. What used to be essential to our survival (and in many ways still is) is now celebrated as novelty.

The problem with this new perception of risk, though, is that novelty seeking is a genetic characteristic, and if you don’t have it, you’re out of luck.

Genetics: The Reason You Won’t Go Skydiving, Start a Business, or Ask That Girl on a Date

Your ability and willingness to take risks is predetermined and, just like any other genetic characteristic, you don’t get any say in how it works.

If your family comes from a long line of thrill seekers, then you’ll probably be a thrill seeker, too. If they don’t, well, science says that you’ll be more comfortable watching a movie about bull riding than actually riding one yourself.

And what, exactly, is this gene that tells us how we’ll behave?

After decades of research, geneticists tell us it’s DRD4, now commonly referred to as the “novelty gene.”

You can find yours on chromosome #11. Everyone’s got it, but there are enough variations that, depending on which you have, you end up somewhere between an accountant with a 30-year mortgage and a professional skydiver.

Risk-taking, or novelty seeking, is a personality trait. Personality traits cannot be changed without, quite literally, altering your genes.

Igor! Bring me the genetic mutator!

Despite all this, we still think we can change ourselves to become risk-takers—move to a new environment, change an old habit, make new friends. The truth is these things make no difference in our ability to accept risk.

In 2000, researchers at the University of Delaware studied the characteristics of identical twins separated at birth in an attempt to learn how personality traits develop. The study ended with plenty of interesting findings, but one stood out above the rest:

Despite the environment they were raised in, the children studied were far more likely to behave like their biological parents than to adopt the characteristics of the people they were raised by.

A child raised by fear-mongering cowards is still going to look for novel and exciting experiences in her life if she’s born with the risk-taking gene even though her parents and surroundings have discouraged it since birth.

And a child lacking the gene will still prefer to read adventure novels to having actual adventures despite being raised by shark-diving, storm-chasing parents.

So what do you do if you weren’t born with the right variation of DRD4? What if your genetic grab bag is missing the crucial ingredient?

Well, there are three things to do:

1. Blame your parents.

You can curse your parents for not passing along the good stuff you wanted, but it’s not really their fault either. Somewhere along the line in your family history, your relatives went from needing to take risks to survive to finding other ways to make it. As you’ll soon see, this isn’t really a bad thing,” and you’d have to look back quite a ways to find the culprit.

2. Be grateful.

Being born without the crucial ingredient for impulsive thrill seeking isn’t all bad; you probably won’t ever have to worry about becoming an alcoholic, problem gambler, or cocaine addict. The DRD4 gene is highly connected to the addiction gene; they both control how you respond to dopamine (the neurotransmitter that controls the reward system in your brain).

It’s also a good indication that you won’t ever take up a less-than-desirable career like theft or prostitution when money’s tight. The ability to predict the behaviors of the risk-endowed is astonishing. A study of 18-year-old college freshmen was successful in predicting behavior at 21, and other studies comparing prison records with the genetic make-up of natural born risk-takers is, to put it lightly, shocking.

Being pre-disposed to risk-taking says nothing of your ability to take smart risks.

3. Hack into the backdoor of your potential.

Even if your genes don’t make you a natural-born risk-taker, there’s still a backdoor you can exploit—a locked entrance that, with the right tools, can be picked. You can open the door not just to taking more risks, but to taking better ones, too.

The key, of course, lies within your mind.

Beating Genetics: How to Become a Risk-Taking Adonis With Napoleon Dynamite Genes

In 1995, researchers Leslie Palich and Ray Bagby wanted to know what it was that made entrepreneurs such risk-takers. They wanted to learn what allowed them to see opportunities and act on them where others would shy away from or avoid them altogether.

The hypothesis: Entrepreneurs are, genetically, no different than anyone else. They only perceive risk differently.

To test the assumption, they created a decision-making survey and sent it to 550 successful entrepreneurs.

The results? Telling.

After tallying up all of the survey responses, what was left was a group of highly successful entrepreneurs that, as they assumed, didn’t self-identify as risk-takers any more than the general public did.

When it comes to natural born risk-taking, entrepreneurs express no different characteristics than anyone else: most entrepreneurs identify themselves as more risk-averse than risk-seeking.

How could it be? What they learned was that successful entrepreneurship often depended on an unlikely suspect: learned ignorance.

Successful entrepreneurs aren’t more open to risk-taking than anyone else; they’re just able to look at risks differently than others.

To put it simply, where the average person sees a high level of risk and attempts to avoid it, entrepreneurs instead see an opportunity and go toward it. Successful entrepreneurs succeed because they fail to see the hazards that others do and, when they do see them, they appraise them as less of a threat.

And why is this finding so exciting?

Because it removes entrepreneurship from a personality trait (a genetic characteristic that can’t be altered) to a cognitive one—a learned behavior that can be molded and changed with practice and persistence.

You cannot run away from that which you cannot see. To allow more risk into your life, train yourself not to see it in the places where you used to; embrace learned ignorance.

And how do you do that? As a wise man would say, “one small step at a time.” You can change the way that your brain perceives risk by introducing it to many small ones and building a tolerance for it just like you would build a tolerance for anything else.

Create daily “risk-experiments” that allow you to test assumptions with little punishment for failure and greater reward for success. By stacking the odds in your favor at the beginning, you can build confidence and slowly change the balance of your experiments through small successes.

Your tolerance for risk will increase as you succeed more and more. This creates a brain-process-interrupt where your amygdala—the prehistoric part of your brain designed to keep you from doing something scary—is cut out of the decision loop by slowly raising its tolerance level, allowing it to sleep where it would normally wake up and sound the alarm.

Where you once perceived risk, you’ll no longer see it. If you were afraid of risk before, that won’t change. What will change is the likeliness that you’ll notice it in the first place.

Now you have the upper hand on genetic risk-takers. Where they have the natural ability to take risks but may lack good judgment, you can take risks and retain your ability to make informed decisions.

And what about that good decision-making? If you’re going to take more risks, you’re probably better off it you also learn to take better ones.

Take Smarter Risks by Learning Arithmetic, Ignoring Confidence, and Skipping Thanksgiving

Let’s pretend for a second that you run a small business, and you have a few financial decisions to make to keep things operating smoothly.

In one case, you need to decide whether it’s better to take a sure bet with a lower gain or to roll the dice on a higher gain with the chance it may not come. In the other case, you have to choose between a sure loss or a chance to lose nothing at all.

Look at the options below. I want you to decide which decisions are the best for you.

In your first decision, you must choose between:

A. A sure gain of $240.
B. A 25% chance to gain $1000 and a 75% chance to gain nothing.

In the second decision, you must choose between:

C. A sure loss of $750.
D. A 75% chance to lose $1000, and a 25% chance to lose nothing.

Which pairing do you prefer? Go ahead and answer in the poll below:

[poll id=”2″]

Analysis:

If you’re like most people, you chose the combination of A and D. You went for the sure thing when it came to gaining money, but you took a risk when it came to losing it. Across the board, people tend to be risk-averse when it comes to the prospect of gaining something, and risk-taking when it comes to the prospect of losing.

This makes sense intuitively, but in the scenario above, you would have lost out.

If you chose A+D, then you opted for a 25% chance to gain $240 and a 75% chance to lose $760.

But if, instead, you had chosen B+C, you would have opted for a 25% chance to gain $250 and a 75% chance to lose $750.

B+C, even though it feels like the wrong choice, is an objectively better decision.

Update: According to the results, it looks like B+D (the two options with the most uncertainty) is the most popular choice among Riskology.co readers. Clearly readers here appreciate risk more than the average person!

You probably would have realized this if you’d considered both choices together, but we’re not programmed to do that. Instead, we prefer to deal with problems like these with linear thinking—solve the first problem first and the second problem second. That works sometimes but more often leads to poor decisions.

By looking at concurrent decisions as part of a whole rather than separate occurrences, you get a better glimpse of the real scenario taking place.

Life is a series of decisions, and none exist in a vacuum; each one affects the next.

How good you are at taking smart risks depends on how good you are at seeing the effect each choice has on the one that comes after it. In the example above, that means re-learning the high school math you’ve long forgotten, but in everyday life it means considering the consequences of your choices as a whole—thinking ahead at least a few steps—rather than considering each on its own merits.

The answer will never be obvious; that’s why it’s called risk-taking. But it can certainly become clearer.

Of course, you already knew this intuitively.

That’s why studies have found that people taking quizzes of random knowledge are generally optimistic when it comes to the certainty of each answer they give, but pessimistic about their overall performance. More simply, most people say they’re confident in their decision after each answer, but once the quiz is over, they aren’t so sure how they did.

This is just one more little way we regularly misunderstand ourselves. Armed with that knowledge, you can start to use it to your advantage.

6 More Fun Ways to Take Better Risks

The body and mind are strange beasts, and even though we still don’t fully understand them, we’ve made massive discoveries that can help you become a better risk-taker each and every day if you’re willing to obey the scientific wisdom.

Here are a few more zany tactics you can employ on your quest to more intelligent risk-taking:

Find smarter friends: Just the act of being in a group makes you far more likely to take risks. This could be due to a sense of shared responsibilities—you don’t feel like you’re acting alone. Taking more risks doesn’t mean taking better ones, though, so be sure to surround yourself with people who inspire you to take smart ones. No need to be king of the hill. Aiming to be the dumbest of all your friends is a noble goal.

Practice sleep deprivation: If it’s basic human nature to take more risks on a loss than on a gain, studies have shown you can at least partially counteract this by staying up too late the night before a big decision; sleep deprivation inhibits the part of the brain that’s responsible for assessing potential losses.

Avoid beautiful women: If you’re a man, elevated testosterone usually equals more risk-taking and less thinking. This is our primitive curse, as proven in a hilarious study at the University of Queensland on the willingness of teenage skateboarders to harm themselves in the presence of beautiful women. If you’re doing something potentially life threatening, make sure no one attractive is watching.

Look at art: New research suggests that looking at art for just 40 minutes can achieve the same effect that five hours of typical “decompression” tactics like reading or relaxing have. To de-stress quickly before a difficult decision, opt for Dalí over Dickens.

Avoid MAO inhibitors: If your doctor prescribes you an MAO inhibitor, avoid important decision making while using it! Deficiencies of the critical MAO-B neurotransmitter are heavily linked to poor decision making. Just ask the legions of prison inmates with MAO-B deficiencies.

Skip Thanksgiving: Not long ago, we learned that tryptophan—a natural chemical found in turkey—is what’s responsible for making you so tired after a holiday feast. Now we know that it makes you temporarily stupid, too. Participants in a study at Queen’s University Belfast were tested for their decision making capabilities during a normal state and during a state of rapid trytophan depletion. Participants in a depleted state made objectively better decisions. This may explain why retailers make so much money on the day after thanksgiving.

In the End…

Risk-taking used to be required for survival, but it isn’t anymore. As a result, some of us have lost the genetic juice that keeps us testing our limits.

If you don’t want to accept fate and embrace comfort, but you’re having a hard time stepping out of your comfort zone anyway, remember that there are several things you can do not only to take more risks, but to take smarter ones, too.

  • Trick yourself to take more risks by slowly raising your risk threshold.
  • Consider your decisions as part of a whole rather than individually.
  • Put yourself in situations that help you take better risks and avoid situations that encourage you to take bad ones.
Your options are now limitless. What will you attempt with your new arsenal of tools?

Sources critical to the creation of this article:

The $50 Ticket: A Lottery Boon Raises Concern
Rapid Tryptophan Depletion Improves Decision-Making Cognition in Healthy Humans without Affecting Reversal Learning or Set Shifting
Reward Value Coding Distinct From Risk Attitude-Related Uncertainty Coding in Human Reward Systems
The Combined Effects of Predation Risk and Food Reward on Patch Selection [Abstract only]
Neural Differentiation of Expected Reward and Risk in Human Subcortical Structures [PDF]
Personality and Risk-Taking: Common Biosocial Factors [PDF]
Using Cognitive Theory to Explain Entrepreneurial Risk-Taking: Challenging Conventional Wisdom [PDF]
Timid Choices and Bold Forecasts: A Cognitive Perspective on Risk-Taking [PDF]
Peer Influence on Risk-Taking, Risk Preference, and Risky Decision Making in Adolescence and Adulthood: An Experimental Study [PDF]
The Presence of an Attractive Woman Elevates Testosterone and Physical Risk-Taking in Young Men [Abstract Only]
The Neural Basis of Financial Risk-Taking [PDF]
Low testosterone linked with financial risk-taking
Gambling and Risk-Taking
Am I genetically predisposed to being a smoker?
Teen Risk-Taking: A Statistical Portrait
Monoamine Oxidase and Its Effect on the Brain

Images by: roberthuffstutter, pennstatelive, gordontour, robeRt Vega, Just Warr