Monday, March 10, 2014

Risk-Taking and the Thinking Horseman



Are You a Risk-Taker/Psychology Today

This week I happened to read an amazing book about "Testosterone Trading" in the financial markets.  The link at the bottom of this post will take you to an analysis of the book by Bloomberg.  If you have any interest at all in the markets or how testosterone plays a part in risk-taking, read the book.  It's fascinating, mostly because it tracks actual and hypothetical situations and the physiology surrounding them.  Don't be put off by the fact that the author is a former trader.  He mentions repeatedly that the same physiologic responses that drive risky behavior in traders also drive that same behavior in athletes.

The rush of adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals makes time
perception skew.  This was the longest 13 seconds of my life.

In case you weren't aware, horseback riding is considered by the insurance industry to be an "extreme" sport.  So don't be sitting all cocky about how you aren't a risk taker because all you do is an occasional weekend trail ride on your aging beastie.  Think for a minute about the leap of logic that got you to climb onto a thousand-pound animal in the first place.  Look around you.  How many of your fellow cube-dwellers and neighbors took that leap.  Yeah.  You got it.  That's risk-taking.  You put your faith in someone who said, "Nah!  He's not going to do anything to hurt you!"  Then off you went astride the unknown of a hairy critter with quick reflexes and only a cursory interest in your personhood in his control.

Physiological Response to Risk-Taking

There's a lot going on in that moment when adrenaline and testosterone overwhelm logic and create an atmosphere that just screams, "How can this be a bad thing when it's so frickin' cool?"  That chaos doesn't happen to everyone every day.  Here's a passage from the Bloomberg article describing the situation used in the book linked below:

"Scott’s heart rate sped up, to pump extra blood to his arms and thighs, Coates writes. His pupils dilated, to absorb more light. He began to sweat, his breathing accelerated and he got a hit of adrenalin. Then, as his losses surged to $24 million, his bowels liquefied." (James Pressley writing for Bloomberg)
Her supreme confidence kept Jess from seeing this as risky.
I, on the other hand, was terrified on her behalf.


There don't have to be dollar signs in the mix for most of us to acknowledge that some of our experiences felt exactly like that.  The sound of my heart beating out of my chest accompanied pretty much every barrier-breaking moment in my riding career from the first ride on a new horse to the first jump over two feet to the first barrel race (and most of them after that), all of my risky behavior was perpetrated to the tune of an adrenal cascade.  Think about the time you watched the horse you were about to ride doing a special version of airs above the ground at the end of the lead rope and that passing thought that maybe this wasn't the best day to saddle up for a ride.  Think about what made you do it despite that little voice in your head begging you to back away from the barn and find something safter to do.  What made you override that voice?

Physiology, that's what.  The same heart-pounding, blindingly-bright sensation that told you there were reasons for concern indicated that your body was preparing to engage in something questionable.  It's all part and parcel of the flight/fight response that all animals share.  Our position at the top of the food chain does nothing to relieve us of that bit of chemical goodness.

You notice that there might be a problem, and your heart starts to pump to send more blood to your brain and muscles in case you need to beat a hasty retreat.  That kicks your adrenals into high gear, and the zing of adrenaline gets you juiced up.  Your pupils dilate to take in more light so the craziness will be completely clear to you, as will your options for escape.  But by the time you've reached full flush, it's already too late.  You're not going to stop.  The risk of being seen as less than brave or of setting your training back or of doing something that undermines your is in the forefront.  The anticipated thrill of riding the lightning over a daunting obstacle is more than your reasonable frontal cortex can deny.  So you go, you jump, you race, you face down an angry beast, you spend your mortgage payment on a new saddle, you buy a horse well above your training level....and you bull ahead.

Sometimes you survive.

Sometimes not so much.

Not everyone has the rapid reaction of a confirmed risk-taker.  You're surrounded by people who think twice...three times...eighty times before they make a risky  move.  You're surrounded by people who don't put as much value on being tough or feeling the thrill.  You're surrounded by sane people.  Then there's you.

Figure out your level of risk-taking based on the Psychology Today article at the top of this page, then read the drier, less thrilling piece on the actual physiology of the response, and learn about why you do what you do.  The link below to the Bloomberg piece and the book with the title noted are the grand finale.  If your risk-taking is problematic--if your family is complaining about having to tube-feed you and change your diapers, for instance--you might find the fact that this is a chemical thing a bit comforting as you can possibly keep a clear mind in the future through sheer force of will and a pulling of the curtain that covered the facts.

If, however, you are on the bridge in that hour between dog and wolf, you might find that you really want more risk in your life and instructions on how to get there.

Ride on!

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf


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