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Why our perception of risk-taking is all wrong

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The face of risk-taking in the United States is male, largely white, and flashy. Think Tom Cruise, who shot to stardom, appropriately enough, with the movie Risky Business, and has been the embodiment of male daredevilry over a lifetime of dramatic action films appropriately titled Mission: Impossible. The professional equivalent of hanging off cliffs and jumping crevasses is the Silicon Valley version of entrepreneurship: betting vast sums that you don’t have on risky deals or maxing out your credit cards and borrowing from everyone you know to fund a start-up that countless people have told you is bound to fail (assuming, of course, that the people you know have funds to lend, which tells us immediately who cannot participate in this kind of risk-taking).

In fact, women are just as inclined to take risks as men. Generations of studies on risk have supported a hypothesis that historian of science Cordelia Fine dubs “testosterone rex”: The idea that women are driven by biology and evolution to be cautious, and men to be daring.” Natural selection supposedly favored men who were willing to take risks to hunt down food or fight other men for territory and thereby were rewarded with multiple mates, whereas women could have only one mate at a time.

Fine carefully dissects this logic and the science behind it, citing multiple studies showing that risk taking is not a stable personality trait even among individuals, much less across genders. In other words, studies repeatedly show that people who are risk acceptant in some areas of their lives are risk averse in others, leading to “insurance-buying gamblers” and “skydiving wallflowers.” If we cannot identify even individuals as uniformly arrayed along a spectrum from risk takers to risk avoiders, then how can we possibly classify entire groups that way?

What does come through the research time and again is that “the risk in a given situation is inherently subjective, varying from one........

© Fast Company

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