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Updated 10:00 AM September 21, 2007
 

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  Research
Study: Not all risk is created equal

A camper who chases a grizzly but won't risk unprotected sex. A sky diver afraid to stand up to the boss. New research shows that not all risk is created equal and people show a mixture of both risky and non-risky behaviors.

The survey also shows that men are significantly riskier than women overall.

The University research refutes the standard theories of risk that identify people as either risk-seeking or risk-avoiding, and suggests that we can have a mix of both risky and non-risky behavior depending on the type.

The study appears in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Daniel Kruger, a research scientist at the School of Public Health, along with colleagues X.T. Wang, University of South Dakota, and Andreas Wilke, University of California, Los Angeles, identified areas of risk taking based on the types of challenges that ancestors faced during many thousands of years of human evolution.

"People are complex," Kruger says. "Just because somebody seems to be a big risk-taker in one area doesn't mean they will take risks in all areas."

The types of risks identified include competition with other individuals; competition with other groups; mating and allocating resources for mate attraction; environmental risks (chasing a bear or skydiving); and fertility risks. The study showed that our tendencies for risk-taking follow these different types of challenges.

"It is remarkable ... that many of the challenges faced by our ancestors are similar to challenges we face in our modern world today," Kruger says.

People surveyed for the study were least likely to take fertility risks, and most likely to take risks related to social status in one's group — like standing up to one's boss. In all domains, men were significantly more risk-taking than women. During human evolution, men competed for social status and resources in order to attract mates. Thus, this pattern is not surprising, Kruger says.

The risks that threaten fertility function differently than the others, Kruger says. Other types of risk have a possible benefit in terms of survival and reproduction. But with fertility risks, the threat only affects reproduction.

The study appears in the latest issue of Evolutionary Psychology.

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