Category Archives: Neuroscience of Risk

Adventurers, Heroes, Puzzlers and Couch Potatoes

In my last blog, I looked at recent research into a possible genetic basis for our differing attitudes to risk.

My Personal Appetite for Risk

I’m going to guess that I am the proud bearer of a 4R allele of my DRD4 gene: I am not risk-taking and impulsive (although some of my friends will struggle to see me as even-tempered, prudent and reflective).  This just goes to show how complex genetics really is.  I further speculate that I have got my attitude to risk largely from my father – but whether this is a genetic or learned inheritance, who can say?

Your Personal Appetite for Risk


In Risk Happens! I have suggested that our individual appetites for risk can be put down to our preferences for uncertain or certain environments, and our tolerance for potentially adverse consequences.

There is some small evidence that one variation on the DRD4 gene correlates to a small degree with novelty-seeking (or, in my language, high preference for uncertainty).  I doubt we’ll ever be able to map gene variants against my four quadrants, but it is fun to know that one dimension does have some origins in our genes.  Does anybody know about genes that have been linked with tolerance to adverse consequences?

Risk Taking – it’s in your genes

Over a decade ago, Chuansheng Chen (at university of California, Irvine) speculated that natural selection may have favoured a gene for risk-taking, to help our species radiate across the globe from our original home in Africa.

Nice idea: show me the proof

The idea is compelling, since we know that young men develop impulse control and the ability to unconsciously anticipate consequences at a later age than young women, which seems an adaptation to leaving home and setting out on their own.  But it is only recently that evidence for such a gene has shown up.


DRD4 is a gene that codes for dopamine receptor D4 in the brain, which is associated with motivation and pleasure (also with addictions, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia).  There are different versions (called alleles) of DRG4 that have been linked to different personality traits:

  • Reflective and cautious people are more likely to have the version with 4 repeats (4R)
  • Impulsive risk-takers are more likely to have the 7R or 2R version (and people with ADHD are twice as likely as the general population to have the 7R allele)


Luke Matthews (Harvard University) and Paul Butler (Boston University) looked at how these alleles are spread across the known migration routes that our early ancestors followed out of Africa and into Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Using statistical methods, they have found a “significant” link between the 7R and 2R alleles and migration in 18 indigenous populations.


I am not qualified to judge the strength of this evidence – which would require examining the statistics and interpreting “significant”.  And let’s keep in mind that correlation does not necessarily imply causation.  So, professionals in the area are treating the findings cautiously, but the evidence is consistent with other evidence that 7R and 2R alleles are relatively recent mutations.

The “so what?”

There is no so what – this is just interesting stuff.  Don’t blame your genes for your attitude to risk.  You have a conscious thinking brain, so take no short-cuts.  Evaluate the evidence on its merits and make your decisions according to properly established priorities.

The Impact of Sleep on Risk

Making decisions when you haven’t had enough sleep is a bad idea.  We all know this, but now, researchers at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience have shown us why.

In research led by Professor Scott Huettel , carried out principally by graduate student Vinod Venkatraman, adults have been observed carrying out gambling tasks after being kept awake all night, and their responses compared to those of other volunteers who got a night’s sleep.

Vinod Venkatraman (left) and
Scott Huettel

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Neuroscience of Risky Shift

A while ago, I wrote a post about Groupthink and Risky Shift.

imageOne of the questions that has long been debated among psychologists is what happens when we change our opinions to fit in with a crowd (and there is plenty of evidence that we do – read up on the Asch Conformity Experiments, for example) .

Do we do so to conform to expectations or because our point of view really is changed by the crowd?

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