Genes and Gambles: Deciphering the Genetics of Risk-Taking

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Genes and Gambles: Deciphering the Genetics of Risk-Taking

Date of Content: January 1, 2024
Written by: Jess Gayo
Reviewed by: Maarit Tiirikainen, PhD


What is Risk-Taking?

Some people can be braver than others in terms of choosing to do things that many would normally not consider. Risk-taking behavior, a fundamental aspect of human psychology, involves uncertainty and the potential for both positive and negative outcomes. Rooted in evolutionary biology, the inclination to take risks served as an adaptive mechanism for survival, driving individuals to explore new territories and seize opportunities. Neuroscientific research reveals that risk-taking behavior is intricately linked to the brain’s reward system, particularly the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.

From a psychological perspective, individual differences in risk-taking can be attributed to a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and personality factors. Numerous studies indicate that age, gender, and socioeconomic status influence the propensity for risk-taking, with adolescents and males often exhibiting heightened risk-seeking tendencies. Moreover, research underscores the role of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine in modulating risk perception and decision-making.

Understanding risk-taking behavior is crucial in various fields, including finance, public health, and education. In finance, risk-taking is a central element in investment decisions, while public health initiatives aim to comprehend risky behaviors contributing to disease transmission. Educational strategies may also benefit from insights into how risk-taking shapes learning experiences. 


Is Risk-Taking a Good Skill?

Risk-taking, when approached judiciously, is a valuable skill with potential benefits across various domains. Neuroscientific studies emphasize the role of the prefrontal cortex in decision-making, indicating that calculated risk-taking stimulates cognitive processes and enhances problem-solving abilities. The concept of “optimal anxiety” suggests that moderate levels of stress, associated with risk-taking, can lead to heightened cognitive performance.

Moreover, research in the business and entrepreneurial realms highlights the positive correlation between strategic risk-taking and innovation. Companies that embrace controlled risks often exhibit greater adaptability and competitive advantages. Psychologically, engaging in calculated risks can foster resilience as individuals learn to navigate uncertainties and setbacks.

However, the distinction between beneficial risk-taking and recklessness is crucial. Scientific evidence underscores that impulsive risk-taking, driven by emotional factors or impaired cognitive processes, may lead to negative outcomes. Striking a balance between risk and caution is essential for reaping the potential rewards of this skill.

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Is Risk-Taking a Genetic Trait or an Acquired Trait?

The propensity for risk-taking behavior is a complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors, as extensive research in behavioral genetics suggests. Studies on twins and families reveal a heritable component to risk preferences, indicating that genetic variations contribute to individual differences in risk-taking tendencies. Specific genes, such as those associated with dopamine receptors and neurotransmitter regulation, have been implicated in shaping the brain’s reward system and influencing risk-related decision-making.

However, the impact of genetics is not deterministic, and environmental influences play a significant role. Childhood experiences, parenting styles, and socio-economic factors contribute to the development of risk attitudes. Epigenetic research underscores how environmental factors can modify gene expression, further blurring the line between nature and nurture in the formation of risk-taking traits.

What Affects a Person’s Risk-Taking Tendencies?

Many factors, including genetics and environment, influence a person’s risk-taking tendencies. This intricate interplay shapes individual risk attitudes, impacting decision-making across various aspects of life.

Genetic Factors

Genetic factors play a crucial role in shaping a person’s risk-taking tendencies. Specific genes associated with neurotransmitter regulation, particularly those influencing dopamine receptors, have been identified as contributors to individual differences in risk-taking preferences. Understanding these genetic influences sheds light on the biological underpinnings of risk-related behavior.


Genetic factors influencing risk-taking behavior were investigated using the UK Biobank cohort (83,677 risk-takers, 244,662 controls). A genome-wide association study revealed 12 loci, including eight novel ones, two replicated findings, and two sex-specific loci. Interestingly, genetic correlations were also observed with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Analysis across ethnicities showed consistent effects. Polygenic risk scores were found to be linked to increased risk-taking associated with lower brain white matter integrity. Candidate genes SOX2, DPYSL5, CGREF1, and C15orf59 were identified. This study enhances the understanding of risk-taking biology, suggesting sex-specific contributions and revealing l candidate genes, such as the  SOX2 with a successfully replicated genetic variant rs9841382.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors play a crucial role in shaping a person’s risk-taking tendencies, interacting with genetic influences to mold individual behavior. Understanding these factors is essential for comprehending the complex interplay that contributes to diverse risk attitudes across individuals.

  1. Upbringing and Parenting Styles: Research indicates that early life experiences, including parenting styles, can significantly influence risk-taking behavior. Children raised in environments characterized by either overprotection or neglect may develop altered risk perceptions.
  2. Socio-economic Status: Socio-economic factors have been linked to variations in risk-taking. Studies suggest that individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds may exhibit higher risk propensity, possibly driven by limited access to resources and opportunities, impacting decision-making processes.
  3. Cultural Influences: Cultural norms and values shape risk perceptions and acceptance within a society. Certain cultures may encourage or discourage risk-taking based on their collective belief systems, influencing individuals’ attitudes toward uncertainty and novelty.
  4. Peer Influence: Social interactions, particularly with peers during adolescence, strongly impact risk-taking tendencies. Peer pressure and the desire for social acceptance can drive individuals to engage in risky behaviors or conform to group norms, affecting decision-making in various contexts.
  5. Educational Environment: The educational setting also plays a role in shaping risk attitudes. Learning environments that encourage creativity, exploration, and problem-solving may foster positive risk-taking, while overly restrictive settings may hinder the development of adaptive risk behaviors.
  6. Life Experiences: Personal experiences, especially those involving success or failure, can significantly influence risk-taking tendencies. Traumatic events or repeated exposure to rewarding experiences may shape an individual’s risk perception and willingness to engage in uncertain situations.
  7. Media and Technology Exposure: The pervasive influence of media and technology introduces another layer of environmental impact. Exposure to risk-related content in media can shape perceptions and normalize certain behaviors, potentially influencing individuals to adopt similar attitudes toward risk.
  8. Stress and Mental Health: Chronic stress and mental health conditions can alter risk-taking behaviors. Stress may lead to impulsive decision-making, while mental health disorders can amplify or mitigate risk attitudes. Understanding the bidirectional relationship between mental health and risk-taking is crucial for a comprehensive perspective.
  9. Access to Resources: Availability of resources, including financial resources and educational opportunities, can impact risk-taking. Individuals with greater access to resources may be more inclined to take calculated risks, while those facing resource constraints may perceive risk differently.
  10. Legal and Regulatory Environment: The regulatory framework and legal consequences associated with certain actions contribute to risk perceptions. Strict legal consequences may act as deterrents, influencing individuals to avoid risky behaviors, while lax regulations may encourage risk-taking.

Recognizing and understanding these environmental influences is pivotal for developing targeted interventions and strategies to promote positive risk-taking behaviors and mitigate potential negative consequences.

What are the Traits of Risk-Takers?

Risk-taking behavior is associated with specific traits that reflect an individual’s predisposition to engage in uncertain or challenging situations. Scientific research has identified several key traits common among risk-takers:

  • Sensation-Seeking: Sensation-seeking is a trait characterized by a desire for novel and intense experiences. Studies, including Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking Scale, have consistently linked high levels of sensation-seeking with increased risk-taking behaviors.
  • Impulsivity: Impulsivity involves acting without careful consideration of the consequences. It is a trait often associated with heightened risk-taking tendencies. Neuroscientific studies demonstrate a correlation between impulsivity and the brain’s reward system, influencing decision-making.
  • Openness to Experience: Individuals high in openness to experience are often more inclined to take risks, embracing novelty and variety. This personality trait, part of the Five Factor Model, correlates with a willingness to explore uncharted territories.
  • Optimism: Optimism, a positive outlook on future outcomes, is linked to risk-taking behavior. Optimistic individuals may perceive risks as opportunities and be more willing to engage in uncertain ventures.
  • High Tolerance for Ambiguity: A high tolerance for ambiguity allows individuals to navigate situations with unclear or uncertain information. Those with this trait may feel less anxiety in ambiguous scenarios, making them more prone to taking risks.
  • Competitiveness: Competitive individuals are often driven to seek success and achieve goals, even if it involves taking risks. This trait can be particularly evident in domains such as sports, business, or academia.
  • Low Fear of Failure: A low fear of failure is associated with risk-taking, as individuals are less deterred by the potential negative outcomes. Psychological studies show that those with a more positive attitude towards failure may be more likely to take risks.
  • High Self-Efficacy: Self-efficacy, the belief in one’s ability to achieve goals, is linked to risk-taking behavior. Individuals with high self-efficacy may perceive risks as challenges they can overcome, fostering a proactive approach.
  • Novelty-Seeking: Novelty-seeking is the inclination to seek new and diverse experiences. This trait aligns with a willingness to take risks to explore and engage with novel stimuli.
  • Curiosity: Curiosity drives individuals to seek knowledge and understanding, often leading to a willingness to take risks in the pursuit of exploration and discovery.

These traits are not exclusive or mutually exclusive; rather, they interact in complex ways, contributing to an individual’s overall risk-taking propensity. Recognizing these traits provides valuable insights for psychologists, educators, and policymakers seeking to understand and manage risk behaviors across diverse contexts.

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Is Risk-Taking Important in Business Matters?

Yes, risk-taking is crucial in business matters, as supported by extensive research in economics and management. Studies have consistently shown a positive correlation between calculated risk-taking and business success. According to the concept of “risk-return tradeoff” in finance, higher potential returns are typically associated with greater risks. Empirical evidence indicates that companies embracing strategic risk-taking often outperform their more conservative counterparts.

The role of entrepreneurial risk-taking is important in fostering innovation and organizational growth. Effective risk management, guided by empirical data and rigorous analysis, is considered a hallmark of successful businesses. 

In essence, studies underscore the importance of informed risk-taking in driving innovation, achieving competitive advantages, and ensuring long-term business sustainability. While reckless risk-taking can lead to negative consequences, a balanced and strategic approach to risk is essential for navigating the dynamic landscape of business and capitalizing on opportunities for growth and success.

What is Healthy Risk-Taking Behavior?

Healthy risk-taking behavior involves calculated and informed decisions that contribute positively to personal development and well-being. Scientific literature highlights key characteristics of healthy risk-taking:

  • Calibration and Informed Decision-Making: Healthy risk-taking is characterized by a thoughtful assessment of potential benefits and consequences. Studies in decision neuroscience emphasize the importance of cognitive processes in evaluating risks.
  • Adaptive Risk-Taking: Adaptability is a crucial aspect of healthy risk-taking. Research in evolutionary psychology suggests that the ability to adapt and take risks in response to changing environments has been evolutionarily advantageous.
  • Courage and Resilience: Healthy risk-taking involves displaying courage in the face of uncertainty. Resilience, the capacity to bounce back from setbacks, is supported by psychological studies as a key factor in positive risk-taking outcomes.
  • Goal-Oriented Risk-Taking: Setting clear goals aligns risk-taking with purpose. Research in organizational psychology highlights that goal-oriented risk-taking is associated with higher performance and achievement.
  • Balancing Short-Term and Long-Term Outcomes: Healthy risk-takers consider both short-term gains and long-term consequences. Behavioral economics research emphasizes the significance of time discounting in decision-making processes related to risk.
  • Openness to Learning: Healthy risk-takers view challenges as learning opportunities. Studies in educational psychology indicate that an open attitude toward learning from experiences is linked to positive risk-taking behavior in academic settings.
  • Social Considerations: Consideration of social implications and collaborative decision-making characterize healthy risk-taking. Social psychology research underscores the impact of social norms and interpersonal dynamics on individual risk attitudes.
  • Emotional Regulation: Emotional intelligence plays a role in healthy risk-taking. Research in psychology highlights that individuals with effective emotional regulation skills are better equipped to navigate risks without succumbing to impulsive behaviors.
  • Ethical Considerations: Ethical awareness is integral to healthy risk-taking. Behavioral ethics research emphasizes the importance of ethical decision-making in mitigating potential harm associated with risk-taking actions.
  • Measuring and Mitigating Risks: Healthy risk-takers engage in thorough risk assessment and mitigation strategies. Research in risk management and decision science underscores the significance of objective measurement and risk mitigation practices.

Overall, a healthy approach to risk-taking is multifaceted, incorporating cognitive, emotional, and social factors. Informed decision-making, adaptability, resilience, and ethical considerations contribute to a positive risk-taking profile, fostering personal growth, innovation, and success in various aspects of life.

Is Risk-Taking Important in Other Aspects of Life?

Risk-taking is crucial in various aspects of life beyond business. In the realm of education, studies say that students who engage in healthy risk-taking behaviors, such as exploring challenging coursework, tend to experience enhanced academic performance and personal development.

In interpersonal relationships, research in social psychology indicates that individuals willing to take emotional risks, like expressing vulnerability or initiating difficult conversations, often foster deeper connections and satisfaction in their relationships. Moreover, there is a positive impact of risk-taking on personal growth, emphasizing its role in expanding one’s comfort zone and fostering resilience.

In the context of health and well-being, research in behavioral medicine underscores the importance of health-related risk-taking, such as adopting new fitness routines or dietary habits, in promoting positive physical and mental outcomes. Individuals who engage in adaptive health-related risk behaviors are more likely to achieve long-term well-being.

How to Improve Risk-Taking as a Trait

Improving risk-taking as a trait involves a combination of cognitive, behavioral, and environmental factors. Scientific research provides insights into strategies that can enhance this skill, promoting a more adaptive and informed approach to risk.

  1. Cultivate a Growth Mindset: Embracing a growth mindset, the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work is associated with a willingness to take on challenges. Research in educational psychology emphasizes the positive impact of a growth mindset on learning and risk-taking.
  2. Exposure to Controlled Risks: Gradual exposure to controlled risks can desensitize individuals to uncertainty and build tolerance. Studies in behavioral therapy highlight the effectiveness of exposure techniques in reducing anxiety and promoting adaptive risk-taking behavior.
  3. Develop Decision-Making Skills: Enhancing decision-making skills is crucial for effective risk-taking. Cognitive training programs, supported by research in cognitive psychology, can improve critical thinking, information processing, and risk assessment abilities.
  4. Seek Varied Experiences: Actively seeking diverse experiences exposes individuals to different challenges and uncertainties. Studies in personality psychology suggest that exposure to novel stimuli and varied environments contributes to the development of risk-taking traits.
  5. Set Clear Goals: Establishing clear and achievable goals provides a framework for purposeful risk-taking. Research in organizational psychology indicates that goal-setting enhances motivation and directs behavior toward desired outcomes.
  6. Foster Emotional Intelligence: Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions and those of others, is linked to better decision-making and risk management. Studies in psychology emphasize the role of emotional intelligence in navigating complex social and personal situations.
  7. Learn from Failures: Embracing failures as learning opportunities are integral to healthy risk-taking. Neuroscientific research indicates that the brain’s response to failure can be modulated through cognitive reappraisal, fostering resilience and reducing fear associated with risks.
  8. Engage in Reflective Practices: Regular self-reflection promotes awareness of personal values, motivations, and risk perceptions. Studies in reflective practices highlight their role in improving decision-making and refining risk-taking attitudes.
  9. Join Networking and Social Groups: Social interactions provide valuable insights and support for risk-taking. Engaging with diverse perspectives within social or professional networks, as suggested by social psychology research, can broaden one’s understanding of risks and opportunities.
  10. Participate in Adventure and Outdoor Activities: Adventure and outdoor activities offer controlled yet exhilarating challenges, fostering a sense of adventure. Research in sports psychology suggests that participation in such activities contributes to the development of risk-taking traits.
  11. Mindfulness and Stress Management: Mindfulness practices and stress management techniques, supported by research in psychology and neuroscience, can enhance emotional regulation and reduce anxiety associated with risk. A calm and focused mind is better equipped to make informed decisions in uncertain situations.

Improving risk-taking as a trait involves a holistic approach that encompasses cognitive, emotional, and experiential dimensions. By combining these evidence-based strategies, individuals can cultivate a more adaptive and resilient approach to risk, facilitating personal growth and success across various aspects of life.

Also check out: How Genetics May Influence Extroversion

LifeDNA’s Risk-Taking Report

Embark on a journey of self-discovery with LifeDNA’s Risk-Taking Report, which is part of our scientifically backed Personality and Cognition Report. Uncover the intricacies of your risk-taking tendencies based on your unique genetic profile. Understanding your predispositions is key to making informed decisions that align with your personal and professional aspirations.

At LifeDNA, we recognize that wellness is at the core of a fulfilling life. Our comprehensive genetic reports offer unparalleled insights into various aspects of your well-being. Explore the Agreeableness Report, Conscientiousness Report, and Openness Report to gain a holistic understanding of your personality traits.

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Take the first step towards a healthier and more informed life. Avail of LifeDNA’s subscriptions today and unlock a wealth of knowledge about yourself. Most importantly, our reports provide actionable insights, allowing you to make choices that resonate with your genetic makeup. Embrace a life of well-being with LifeDNA – where your DNA guides you to a brighter, healthier future.


  • Risk-taking behavior, rooted in evolutionary biology, involves uncertainty and potential outcomes and is intricately linked to the brain’s reward system, particularly the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.
  • Genetic factors, including specific genes associated with neurotransmitter regulation, contribute to individual differences in risk preferences. 
  • Environmental factors, such as upbringing, socio-economic status, cultural influences, and peer interactions, can also significantly shape a person’s risk-taking tendencies, while interacting with genetic influences to mold each behavior.
  • Traits of risk-takers include sensation-seeking, impulsivity, openness to experience, optimism, high tolerance for ambiguity, competitiveness, low fear of failure, high self-efficacy, novelty-seeking, and curiosity, all interacting in complex ways.
  • Risk-taking is crucial in various life aspects, influencing education, relationships, health, and overall well-being. Adaptive health-related risk behaviors are linked to achieving long-term well-being.



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*Understanding your genetics can offer valuable insights into your well-being, but it is not deterministic. Your traits can be influenced by the complex interplay involving nature, lifestyle, family history, and others.

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