AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

AncestryDNA® Traits Learning Hub

AncestryDNA® Traits
Learning Hub

Risk Taking

Human beings have always taken risks, whether the type of risk is a physical or emotional one. But there are more factors than you might imagine involved in our risk-taking choices. How much of a risk taker you are depends on your gender, age, personality, environment, cognitive ability, life experiences, and yes, your genes. An AncestryDNA® + Traits test can tell you how your DNA might affect your tendency to take risks.

Does Everyone Take Risks?

People differ greatly when it comes to risk tolerance and taking chances. Some of us seemingly choose risky careers or make risky financial decisions, whereas others work hard to avoid danger. Our choices around risk taking are likely not the same throughout our lifetime. There's no question that risk-taking behaviours seem to be the highest in teenage years. In fact, statistics show that the rate of death and injury is higher in teens than in younger children. One reason teenagers tend to take more risks is because they don't seem to fear the unknown as much. It’s also because their brains are still developing, which impacts their cognitive ability to make decisions and calculate risks with good judgement in mind.

Personality matters, too. There is such a thing as risk proneness, which means how likely you are to be attracted to taking risks. People who are impulsive and sensation-seeking tend to be more prone to binge or engage in risky behaviour. Also, our feelings and mindset in any given moment, like anger or excitement, can override the more rational parts of our brain and make us take risks we normally wouldn't. The reverse is true as well: Fear might make you avoid a risk you'd normally take.

The Genetics Behind Risk Taking

Researchers are learning more about how our genes influence different risk-taking behaviours. One study using data from twins estimated that heritability—the amount of variation in a trait in a population that is explained by genetic differences—can vary depending on the type of risk. This study showed the heritability for financial risks was 29%, while for safety it was 55%. A different study of Swedish adults estimated that the heritability for financial portfolio risk was 25%. For comparison, height is one of the traits most strongly impacted by genetics, and its estimated heritability is around 80%. More recently, research found 124 genetic variants, located in 99 regions of the genome, related to risk taking. However, none have a clear and specific link to making risky decisions or engaging in risky behaviour like speeding, drinking, or smoking. As well, each variant alone had only a small effect on risk taking. It was the combination of the variants that researchers found had a significant impact.

The AncestryDNA® team, too, has been interested in the connection between genetics and personality traits like risk taking. Over 90,000 people participated in a survey about risk taking (as well as other behaviours), and then their responses were compared to their DNA profile. The result is over 23,000 DNA markers that may be connected to risk taking and that were used to build a Polygenic Risk Score.

What Else Does Science Say About Those Who Take Chances?

There are some interesting things going on outside of genes and personality when it comes to risk. For one, research suggests that we are more likely to take risks when we see others, particularly our peers, taking risks. In fact, knowing other people who have taken the same risk you're contemplating can make you more likely to take that risk yourself. Even if you know it isn't a great idea, when your friend engages in risky behaviour, you just might, too.

On the flip side of risk proneness is risk aversion, or loss aversion, which economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains with the example that people are often more afraid of losing $100 than they are motivated to gain $150. Researchers have found that people who are strongly risk averse look for opportunities to maintain the status quo. They don't always end up as well off as risk takers, though some research suggests they tend to be more ethical and honest (because to behave otherwise seems too risky).

Interesting Findings About Risk Taking

Psychologists are fascinated by the “risk gap" that human beings seem to have. For example, 9 out of 10 drivers think laws against behaviour that is high risk—like texting and driving—are good. And yet 80% of the population has engaged in texting and driving. This is because we are often better at evaluating a level of risk for someone else than we are for ourselves.

While some people think taking risks must be related to how your genes regulate your brain's “feel good" chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, recent research has debunked that assumption. Genes that are linked to regulating mood and processing reward don't actually seem to be linked to risk taking. Instead, scientists have been able to tie certain brain chemicals, notably glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to the varied risk tolerance people have. These two chemicals help regulate brain activity: GABA inhibits communication among neurons, while glutamate encourages it. Scientists are still trying to learn more about how GABA and glutamate impact risk decisions.



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