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Risk and reward: the science of risk-taking behaviour

20 May 2023

Consider this, you are standing at the side of a busy road. To cross the road you may go directly, or use a nearby footbridge. Which process you choose will be determined by considering the risks. Crossing the road directly gives you an opportunity to reach the other side quickly, but if you take that opportunity there is an increased risk of injury from moving cars.

Sounds like an easy decision, no? Yet, as humans, our ability to justify risky behaviour and disregard long-term consequences can be a powerful motivational force.

Simply put, we are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In fact, the mere idea of misfortune or inconvenience can mean we ignore the risks because, from an evolutionary perspective, psychological pain is real pain and something to avoid.

At Cycle Inspect, we are fascinated by this phenomenon. When we have the opportunity to avoid pain (be it financial, physical, psychological, emotional), why do we fail to plan ahead or ignore the warning signs? Why do we risk it when the consequences to ourselves, our friends and family, our employers and our community, are so great?

Research studies have identified several factors that contribute to people taking risks with their safety.

Optimism Bias

Academic Tali Sharot coined the the term 'optimism bias' into our awareness. Sharot's idea is that many of the seemingly unbiased decisions we make every day are influenced by the fact that we are optimists at heart and that we think positively about the future. Sounds nice, right? One downside of this is that it paves the way for risk-taking behaviour ("this will never happen to me!")

Why do we do this? Well, we tend to believe we have control over our lives, and however we also tend to believe we have more control than we actually do.

Perception of Control

When people feel that they have control over a situation, they are more likely to take risks. This perception of control is often illusory and can lead to serious consequences. For example, a experienced cyclist who is confident of their ability to service and maintain their own bike may feel in control of their safety without factoring in the hidden dangers of structural damage.

Social Pressure

Social pressure can influence risk-taking behavior through social comparison. When we compare ourselves to others and perceive that others are engaging in risky behavior, we may be more likely to do the same. In other words, if we observe that risk-taking behaviour in others is not resulting in negative consequences, we assume the same for us.

Sensation Seeking

Sensation seeking is a personality trait characterised by the pursuit of novel, intense, and thrilling experiences. People who are high in sensation seeking may engage in risky behavior to satisfy their craving for excitement. We prioritise our intense need for thrilling experiences ahead of our need to keep safe. Because, seriously, how thrilling is risk management?

Cost-Benefit Analysis

People often engage in a ‘cost-benefit analysis’ when consciously deciding whether to take risks. If the perceived benefits outweigh the perceived costs, they may be more likely to engage in the behaviour. From our research at Cycle Inspect, this is unfortunately something we hear about a lot. How long will the repair take? How much will it cost? How likely is a catastrophic failure anyway? Worryingly, for some, the thought of being without their bike for too long (whilst being repaired) or paying for a reliable repair to ensure the longevity of their ride is too much to ask.   

So, in many ways, we are our own worst enemies - but this isn't a criticism. As you may have observed, such thought processes are often unconscious and some tendencies we have are simply aspects of our personality.

What else can you think of that might be at play? What makes it hard for you to 'plan ahead' and take the proper precautions?




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