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You decide to do something dangerous or stupid, and somewhere in your mind you know it’s risky, but you do it anyway. But why?

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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Sources:

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Image Sources:
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[♩INTRO].

We all do stupid things once in awhile. But some mistakes are worse than others: Sometimes grabbing a drink after work with your friends accidentally becomes an evening you can't remember, and you're just glad that you didn't end up with alcohol poisoning or married and lost in Vegas.

You usually don’t mean to land yourself in a sticky situation. You decide to do something, and maybe in the back of your mind somewhere you know there’s a risk, but you do it anyway. There are two major components to taking a dangerous or stupid risk.

First, somehow the sensible part of your brain becomes a lot easier to ignore. And second, . So, depending on how they respond to excitement and how much self-control they have, some people are more prone to taking risks than others.

In psychology, something’s a risk when you don't know for sure what's going to happen. A lot of research has gone into studying the risks tied to bad outcomes, like whether you'll get an STI or an unplanned pregnancy from having unprotected sex. With risks like this, the bad thing is really bad, but it might not happen.

And there's some good thing that you're more sure about — in this case, sex. ****You have to decide whether the risk is worth it, and different people will make different decisions. For people who tend to decide to take the risk, fun and pleasure and excitement is kind of ... more fun and exciting. Psychologists call this sensation seeking: some people are just more drawn to new or intense experiences, like bungee jumping or spontaneously deciding to go on a trip with no plan.

For low sensation-seekers, these things don’t move the needle on their pleasure-meter as much, so they don’t spend as much time on them. Sensation seeking seems to have a lot to do with the limbic system, which is a pretty old part of your brain, evolutionarily speaking. Every mammal has one, and they look kind of similar.

It’s involved in a lot of the basic stuff, like your emotions, stress response, and long-term memory. Whenever you get some kind of reward — or even just expect it — your limbic system sends out a bunch of dopamine, one of the brain’s main feel-good neurotransmitters. Studies have found that there's probably a big genetic component to how sensation seeking works in different people’s brains.

Its heritability — meaning, how much of the trait comes from nature, rather than nurture — is between 40 and 60 percent, which is about as high as it gets for most psychological traits. One part of the limbic system, called the nucleus accumbens, seems to be more active in people with higher sensation seeking. And when you’re anticipating a reward, activity in another area of the brain, called the insula, is also correlated with higher sensation seeking.

It’s part of the cortex, a part of the brain that evolved more recently, but it’s pressed up against the limbic system, and is associated with emotional and gut reactions. Basically, people with higher sensation seeking have a bigger response to pleasure, excitement, and rewards. Which makes it kind of like driving a car with a really sensitive gas pedal: you only need a light tap to rev the engine.

Higher sensation seeking is making people more likely to ignore some other possible negative consequences of taking a risk — and a little more likely to crash their car. Metaphorically speaking. There’s still the other major component to risk-taking, though: the brakes.

Some people, even if they have high sensation seeking, are just better at controlling their impulses and desires than others. In studies, there's a part of the brain that’s almost always activated when people exercise self-control: the prefrontal cortex, which seems to be responsible for telling the limbic system when to cool it. That helps explain why adolescents tend to take more risks than adults do.

While most parts of your brain are finished developing by the time you’re a teenager — including the limbic system, with its dopamine-injecting power — your prefrontal cortex might not be fully developed until your mid-20s. One thing that's taking so long is the myelination in the brain, where your neurons are coated with the myelin sheath, a membrane that makes their signals go faster. It's almost as if the part of your brain responsible for the brakes just can't get there in time for a lot of decisions.

Even after their prefrontal cortex is finished developing, some people still have a lot more trouble with self-control than others. But, unlike sensation seeking, which has a big genetic component and is hard to change, self-control might be a thing people have a little more power over. If you think you might have a high level of sensation seeking, you can try to train yourself to have better self-control.

It’s not easy, but there are cognitive strategies that have been helpful for people — like, if you’re tempted to take a risk, you can try finding something to distract you. Changing your environment can also help — like, if you know you have trouble keeping it to a few drinks and you don’t want to get blackout drunk, you can try asking your friends to meet up at a coffee shop instead. So, everyone takes stupid risks sometimes.

But by knowing more about what’s going on in your brain when you decide whether to take a risk, you can try to minimize the number of choices you’ll regret. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, brought to you by our patrons on Patreon! If you’d like to support us, you can go to patreon.com/scishow.

And if you want to learn more about how these weird brains of ours work, you can go to youtube.com/scishowpsych and subscribe. [♩OUTRO].