Researchers find risk-taking behavior rises until age 50

November 10, 2011

Willing to risk your knowledge, skills and monetary reward in competition? If you are under age 50, you've probably not reached your competitive peak. If you are older, that peak is behind you. That people are willing to engage in risk at 50 surprised University of Oregon economists and psychologists who explored such behavior in their research.

Ever since former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers lit up the news in 2005 with his comment that innate differences between men and women may explain the lower numbers of women in the upper echelons of science, researchers have been exploring the impact of and risk-taking across the lifespan, said Ulrich Mayr, professor of psychology.

Mayr and UO economist William Harbaugh started their inquiry in Summer 2010 with a group of Eugene high school students, who were studying with them in a UO summer program. After receiving training on the nuances of conducting research, the students went to a Eugene shopping mall, set up a kiosk and recruited, at a dollar pop, more than 800 adult volunteers. Participants were given a choice to solve some simple and receive a small cash reward for each correct answer or potentially earn a larger payoff if they won in competition with others.

The project began as part of a required educational component of a stimulus grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Aging. Under the guidance of the UO researchers, the students uncovered uncharted territory, so the Mayr-Harbaugh teamed mined the data more in-depth.

In a paper appearing online ahead of publication in the journal Psychology and Aging, the researchers report that the willingness to enter competition to achieve a bigger payoff continues to rise for all adults -- men slightly more than women -- until they get into their 50s. The results were drawn from 543 of the adults in the study who were ages 25 to 75. The 281 men and 262 women were relatively well balanced across age brackets of 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64 and 66-74.

"Competitions are really important as people go after resources, political positioning, college admission, jobs and the like," Mayr said. "How well you perform in them determines your success. Maybe it's all about choices people make. The results of our study were striking and novel."

"We expected to find the competitive risk-taking going down," Harbaugh said. "Seeing it going up to age 50 was surprising."

Conventional wisdom, based on previous research most often focused on younger adults, indeed has suggested that risk-taking behavior declines after about age 25. Earlier research also has shown that cognitive performance declines as people age, with hormone levels such as cortisol and testosterone going down. "The general notion," Mayr said, "has been that as you grow older, achievement is not as important anymore."

Earlier studies also had documented that women, especially college-aged, were less likely than men to participate in competition. "The gender difference didn't go away in our study," Harbaugh said. Interestingly, the researchers found that these gender differences "extend across the lifespan, remaining virtually unchanged between 25 and 75."

Taking risks to achieve rewards has huge consequences, he said. It is a behavior that is fundamental in the business world, he said, whether a person is launching a start-up company or a restaurant, for example. "We need to understand this drive and gender differences that might be at play. While we saw parallel curves for men and women across the lifespan, it was slightly less strong for women. What are the consequences for men and women?"

The participants had been given a choice to complete a short mathematics exercise and receive a small cash reward for correct answers in non-competitive work or potentially larger payoffs if they out-performed others in the task.

Explore further: Young women with rheumatoid arthritis at more risk for broken bones

Related Stories

Young women with rheumatoid arthritis at more risk for broken bones

November 6, 2011
Women under 50 with rheumatoid arthritis are at greater risk of breaking bones than women without the condition, according to a Mayo Clinic study being presented at the American College of Rheumatology annual scientific ...

Recommended for you

Psychopaths are better at learning to lie, say researchers

July 25, 2017
Individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits are better at learning to lie than individuals who show few psychopathic traits, according to a study published in the open access journal Translational Psychiatry. The ...

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

Using money to buy time linked to increased happiness

July 24, 2017
New research is challenging the age-old adage that money can't buy happiness.

Exposure to violence hinders short-term memory, cognitive control

July 24, 2017
Being exposed to and actively remembering violent episodes—even those that happened up to a decade before—hinders short-term memory and cognitive control, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National ...

Researchers pave new path toward preventing obesity

July 24, 2017
People who experience unpredictable childhoods due to issues such as divorce, crime or frequent moves face a higher risk of becoming obese as adults, according to a new study by a Florida State University researcher.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.