Category Archives: Risk Appetite

T is for Thrill

What is your appetite for risk? If you have a high appetite for risk, then chances are you are what Frank Farley (Professor of Psychology at Temple University, Philadelphia) would describe as a ‘Type T’ personality.

‘Type T’s  crave excitement, stimulation and arousal, often through thrill seeking behaviour. They enjoy variety and change and have a high tolerance for uncertainty. In day to day life, they are psychologically resilient, believing that they control their own fate. They come across as confident and assertive.

Farley splits ‘Type T’s into two sub-types:


The T+ subtype shows predominantly healthy risk-taking. They are highly creative innovators, prepared to challenge conventional thinking and to take the lead. These are the people who find solutions, think differently and change the world.


The T subtype shows a more destructive personality, taking dangerous risks in search of ever greater thrills. Delinquency and crimes of excitement are the result of this personality taken to extremes. At a lesser extent, a T may put their own life at risk in a dangerous sport – that can also result in serious risk to the people around them or to would be rescuers.

There is an excellent 5-minute video of Frank Farley talking about this on YouTube.


Towards the end of this video you will have heard Farley discussing how to provide suitable stimulation for ‘Type T’ children. I wonder if T behaviours start to arise when children have insufficient creative and productive – socially appropriate – outlets, which could lead them to a T+ orientation.

The Genetic Source of Type T

In an earlier blog, ‘Risk Taking – it’s in your genes’, I described the genetic research of Luke Matthews (Harvard University) and Paul Butler (Boston University), who have found of mutations to a dopamine receptor gene that may be linked to risk-taking. I would love to see research on correlating these mutations with Type T personalities – mindful as always that correlation would not form proof of causation.

Type T and Project or Change Management

Farley’s last statement in the video is his assertion that surviving in the 21st Century is about dealing with change. This has always been an essential skill for managers of change. Yet, as project managers, we ted to spend a lot of our time managing-out risk and creating an environment that we can control. So I wonder: how much of a Type T makes a good Project Manager or Change Leader?

We need:

  • tolerance for ambiguity
  • a feeling that we can control our fate
  • self-confidence
  • creative thinking and a preparedness to innovate

Yet we must disdain:

  • toleration of any unnecessary risks
  • innovation for its own sake
  • creating or seeking out thrill and stimulation
  • open, rule-free environments

What balance of Type T or its opposite (which I shall name ‘Type C’ for ‘caution’) do you see as appropriate?

Post Script: The Estimation Debate

Some of my readers may be aware – or even involved – in the debate about whether estimation is sensible or practical in project management – especially in large systems projects. I wonder if the two sides of this debate represent in some ways a polarisation of:

  • Type T‘no estimates’ – let’s figure it out as we go along
  • Type C – estimates are essential for accountability and control

I confess that I have not got involved in this debate because others have articulated my own views far more robustly and rigorously than I could have (see in particular Glen Alleman’s Herding Cats blog for many articles on this).

But I also wonder if my inability to get my head around why anyone would not start with making the best estimates that the data permit is not directly related my low Type T tendencies. If you have been interested in the ‘no estimates’ debate, please do comment.

Post Post Script: It’s Bonfire Night

This blog is published on 5 November and tonight is Bonfire Night in the UK. If you are attending or making your own fireworks display and bonfire tonight: be safe!


Risky Shift: Why?

I have written before (Groupthink, Abilene and Risky Shift and Neuroscience of Risky Shift) about Risky Shift. This is a phenomenon every project or change manager needs to be aware of. In short, it is the tendency to for groups to make decisions that have a more extreme risk profile (or more cautious) than any of the members of the group would individually have subscribed to. But why does it happen?

Researchers have proposed a number of theories…

A social psychology of group processes for decision-making

Collins, Barry E.; Guetzkow, Harold Steere.
Wiley, 1964

The authors suggest that a power differential allows higher power group members who favour a more extreme position to persuade other group members to support that position.

Diffusion of responsibility and level of risk taking in groups

Wallach, Michael A.; Kogan, Nathan; Bem, Daryl J.
The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 68(3), Mar 1964, 263-274.

The authors suggest that in a group, the sense of shared responsibility leaves individuals feeling that they themselves are committing to a lesser share of risk, reducing their level of concern about the implications of the risk.

Social Psychology

Brown, Roger.
New York: Free Press, 1965.

In this classic (and dense) textbook, the author puts forward his theory that in risk valuing cultures like that in the US, where he worked, group members are drawn towards higher risk to maintain their sense of status in the group. This would suggest that, in systemically risk averse cultures, caution would be socially valued leading to cautious shift.

Familiarization, group discussion, and risk taking

Bateson, Nicholas
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1966

This author details experimental evidence leading to the hypothesis that it the discussion process that matters – as group members become more familiar with a proposal, the level of risk seems to diminish: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ maybe?

The ‘so what?’

  1. Facilitate discussions to minimise power differentials and minimise the impacts of any that remain.
  2. Be clear with group members that they are jointly and severally (that is, individually) responsible for any decision the group makes.
  3. Disentangle status, value and risk. Set the culture around contribution, value and process. Your personal value is linked to your contribution to a robust process.
  4. Facilitate an objective risk assessment of each proposal.


A Mother’s Touch and its affect on Risk Behaviour

Physical contact can influence decision-making behaviour and willingness to take risks.  This is the result of study by a team led by Jonathan Levav at Columbia University Business School.

Jonathan Levav

In a paper called Physical Contact and Financial Risk-Taking, co-authored with Jennifer Argo, Levav found that students asked to make a decision between a safe option and a higher risk alternative were more likely to choose the riskier bet if a female researcher had patted them briefly (1 second) on the back of the shoulder while briefing them, compared to when there was no physical contact.

This was true for both men and women.  A male researcher patting them while he briefed them, appeared to have no impact on choice.

Asian mother and child: Image by din! Click for Flickr PageLevav speculates that the woman’s touch kindled memories of a supportive mother.

To confirm the hypothesis, they asked other students to make financial decisions after doing a writing exercise.

Half wrote about a time when they felt supported, and the rest wrote about a time of insecurity.  The latter group were particularly affected by the shoulder pats from a female researcher.

The “so what?”

Please beware physical contact from a woman before making a decision or assessing risk.

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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.