Researchers say risk takers never really change, even as they age

Keep on keeping on.
Keep on keeping on.
Image: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
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Those with a taste for adventure have likely heard a cautionary tale at some point about a friend—or relative, or idolized celebrity, or whoever—who seems to become increasingly boring as they get older. “That will never be me,” they firmly promise themselves, half-confident, half-fearful.

But in fact, new research says, a person’s willingness to seek adventure and take risks may not decline simply because of age. Risk-taking is really more a personality trait that stays stable throughout adulthood, according to an analysis of the lifestyles of more than 44,000 German adults published this week (Jan. 28) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. As with any personality trait, major life events such as illness or marriage might have an effect, but for the most part, a person’s willingness to take chances holds relatively steady to that of their peers as they age.

So if you’re already a risk-taker, you’re likely to be one forever.

Researchers from the Max Plank Institute for Human Development in Germany, Yale University, and the University of Basel in Switzerland crunched through 10 years of data on 18- to 85-year-olds from the German Socio-Economic Panel, a longitudinal study of the German population that began in 1984. They found that individuals’ willingness to take financial and social risks—such as investing in a new company or trusting a stranger—stayed fairly consistent as they got older, as did their willingness to take chances related to work, health, and driving. Interest in recreational risks (think skydiving and bungee-jumping) did drop off somewhat after the age of 30, but that might have more to do with losing some of your physical agility, as opposed to your willingness to freefall thousands of feet through the air.

The findings go against popular assumptions that risk-taking decreases with age in general. This perception is based on “generalizations and stereotypes about more cautious older individuals,” Yale psychology professor Gregory Samanez-Larkin and a co-author of the study said in a press release.

That most older people aren’t really much more risk-adverse than they were in their youth isn’t just good news for thrill-seeking millennials—it’s also a promising nugget of information that may prove relevant to understanding psychological development, fraud victimization in old age, and the idea of personality itself.