Why We Take Risks

Probably due to poor self-control

People who engage in risky behavior might have poor self-control.     Photo: Hazan/Shutterstock

A BASE jumper who pitches herself off a cliff might not be crazy. She might just lack self-control, according to a new study.   

Findings published this month suggest that when we engage in risky behavior, it’s not because our brain's desire system is too active. It’s probably because we simply can’t stop ourselves.

A team of researchers used brain scans to study the correlation between brain activity and how people make decisions. They hooked up 108 participants to an MRI scanner and let them play video games that simulated risk taking.

By analyzing brain regions typically involved with functions such as control, working memory, and attention, scientists could predict a person’s future choices. They concluded that risky decisions stem from a failure of our control systems.

“We all have these desires, but whether we act on them is a function of control,” reported Sarah Helfinstein, a researcher at University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study. The report will appear online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists hope the new research will help doctors treat mental illness and addiction. The findings might also give us a better idea of what our brains look like on adventure.

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