Picture yourself standing at the front of a path of red hot coals. A handful of your friends are by your side, some cheering you on while others are claiming things from your will. Would you risk burning yourself for the glory of conquering this obstacle?
Countless movies and reality TV shows have turned this scenario into the quintessential task for seeing how people react to risk. Though we all may fantasize of strutting across the coals without hesitation and completely unfazed by the apparent inferno, the way people actually evaluate and take risk into consideration before they make a decision is a complex process depending on categorical and individual factors. Using recent research and knowledge on these factors that influence risky decision making, it may now be possible to predict and maybe even consciously manipulate how you and others perceive and integrate risk.
It is well known in society and the scientific community that adolescence is directly linked with risk-taking behavior. Age is an important factor that can influence how risk is handled; there is a good chance that a group of teens would have a higher completion rate on the coal-walking challenge than a group of middle aged adults or a group of children. A study conducted by Galvan et. al. has suggested a reason for this. While performing a task depended on risk/reward manipulation, adolescents showed enhanced activity in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) than children. Interestingly, this same activity was found in adults, but adults also had significant activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) that adolescents and children lacked. This finding suggests that nucleus accumbens activity is functionally linked to risk-seeking behavior. The OFC, a higher-level analytical region, may need to be activated through experience and development in order to curb the risk-seeking decisions favored by analysis from the NAcc.
Another categorical factor that influences the way people assess risk during decision making is gender. Though the research can be controversial, studies have found that men show higher impulsivity and tendency for risk-taking behavior, suggesting that members of the different genders analyze risk differently. A paper published by Tatia Lee et. al. found differential brain activity during risk-taking tasks. Female participants in their study showed greater activation in the right insula and the bilateral orbitofrontal cortex than male participants. This pattern, especially the activity in the OFC, relates back to the adolescence study since it suggests that women use this higher-function brain region to analyze the effects or implications of risk to a greater extent than men.
People don’t react equally to risk even if they are in the same categories talked about above. Risk can have a significant effect on the emotional system in the brain. Differences in the sensitivities of the affective systems to risk cause differences in trait anxiety, which is the amount of unpleasant anxiety an individual feels when presented with a threat (or the possibility of a threat). According to a study by Xu et. al, trait anxiety can be seen during a risky decision task as enhanced activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, two brain regions commonly known to be a part of the emotional system. This brain activity, and the overall decision, can be manipulated by framing the risk. If it is presented as a possible negative, people are more likely to take the less risky option. If the risk is presented as a possible gain, participants were more likely to take the risk. Though this effect was seen in almost every participant, it was especially obvious in those with high trait anxiety. This means that the people more sensitive to the emotional impact of the situation can have their decision more easily manipulated by the framing of the risk. These results show how the emotional system ties into the perception of risk, and therefore its influence on the decision making process.
While there are plenty of other factors that also influence how risk can be taken into account while making a decision, recent research can allow people to vaguely predict and change how individuals are affected by risk. It might have already been easy to predict whether a male teenager or a middle aged woman would run across a stretch of coals just from categorical knowledge. Now, however, closer details emerge as factors, like how emotionally reactive the person is or was the individual listening to the positive frames (how awesome would it be to run across fire?!) or the negative frames (you’re going to burn yourself!)? And most importantly, if you find yourself on a reality TV show and need to complete this task, you now know how the decision can be made easier: act quickly so that your more conservative brain regions don’t veto the decision.
Adriana Galvan, Todd A. Hare, Cindy E. Parra, Jackie Penn, Henning Voss, Gary Glover, and B. J. Casey. (2006) Earlier Development of the Accumbens Relative to Orbitofrontal Cortex Might Underlie Risk-Taking Behavior in Adolescents. The Journal of Neuroscience, 26(25), 6885-6892. retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/26/25/6885.full.pdf+html? sid=ad402ecb-af36-469a-9d94-4464a8432893
Shirley Fecteau, Daria Knoch, Felipe Fregni, Natasha Sultani, Paulo Boggio, and Alvaro Pascual-Leone. (2007) Diminishing Risk-Taking Behavior by Modulating Activity in the Prefrontal Cortex: A Direct Current Stimulation Study. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(46), 12500-12505. retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/27/46/12500.full.pdf+html? sid=97259626-3f79-42ac-a12b-d3be5a901b4f
Pengfei Xu, Ruolei Gu, Lucas S. Broster, Runguo Wu, Nicholas T. Van Dam, Yang Jiang, Jin Fan and Yue-jia Luo. (2013) Neural Basis of Emotional Decision Making in Trait Anxiety. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(47), 18641-18643. retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/47/18641.full.pdf+html
Tatia M. C. Lee, Chetwyn C. H. Chan, Ada W. S. Leung Peter T. Fox and Jia-Hong Gao. (2009) Sex-Related Differences in Neural Activity during Risk Taking: An fMRI Study. Cerebral Cortex, 27(11), 1303-1312. retrieved from http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/6/1303.full.pdf+html