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Why do humans take risks?

In my last post, I mentioned how I love the Winter Olympics because of the perception that many of the sports are dangerous and that many of the athletes are risk takers.


This has prompted another question. Why do we take risks? Why do we want an adrenaline rush that could ultimately end up ending our lives if it goes wrong?


Why do people jump of bridges attached to a bungee rope? Why do they hurtle around a race track in a fast car with little protection? Why do some sit on huge tanks of explosive chemicals and go into space? Why do people free-climb on buildings and cliffs without ropes? Why do people take a risk of illness by avoiding medication or vaccination? And, ultimately, why do people ignore controls put in place for their protection in the workplace?


Is it because we get bored and want to spice up our lives? Is it for money? Is it, like I discussed in the last post, for the adrenaline rush?


Do those risk takers think of the consequences of their actions? More often than not, probably no.


Human beings are naturally curious animals. And curiosity leads, over time, to us taking more risks to discover and learn and experiment.


When early humans discovered fire, it was all to do with survival. They were risk takers as they learned with time, how to control it to their advantage. I am sure many got burned in the process.


The people who discovered the wheel and how it could help transport themselves and items quickly and smoothly would never imagine how the use of the wheel moved on with time. Imagine an early human being using logs to move heavy stones into place like at Stonehenge. They would not comprehend that in the 21st century, we were using wheels to speed across the country in metal boxes. If time travel existed (which thank goodness it doesn't), they would be seriously apprehensive and terrified about taking such a risk. But to us that risk is normal.


Those early human risks, perceived by us as small, are nothing compared to risks nowadays. The need for speed, the need to try new riskier things gets more and more important with each generation. But to some, the need for speeding around a racetrack is also perceived low risk. At what cost is this lost perception of risk?


Certainly the environment has suffered. The need to learn and better ourselves has led not only to personal risk in a car or spaceship, but to the burning of fossil fuels to meet that selfish need. And what about those we love and who love us? If the risk goes pear-shaped, it isn't you picking up the pieces. With risk, life has speeded up, creating more risks and consequences. And what about future generations, cleaning up after us? A coal mine on the Durham coast in the 19th and 20th centuries used a beach for all the mine waste. They took a risk to go underground for fuel. They have left a legacy that we are cleaning up on the beach and in the sea. All risk taking has consequences.


What I am getting at, is, despite risk taking being a human trait, it is fundamentally a selfish but important act.


In the workplace, we do risk assessments, provide method statements, carry out training. But still people take risks, take short-cuts. And have accidents.


How do we prevent these risk takers putting their lives, those of others, and your business at risk? Simply by not allowing them to. Develop a strong safety culture in the workplace. Let the risk takers do the risk taking away from work if they have to. Communicate safety messages in ways the workforce understands.


There is a brilliant book on this, and if you run a business, I strongly recommend it. People Power by Karen J Hewitt (ISBN 9780-1-784529-52-9) explains the importance of employee engagement through health and safety. Engage the workforce and people will tow the line, and the risk takers will be more inclined to comply. Health and safety becomes the ultimate team sport.


But despite this, the human need for risk in life is vitally important. Children need to be exposed to some risk. That is the only way they learn what is safe and unsafe.


And we need an adrenaline rush. As long as it is controlled with the help of experts and the consequences are considered, both personal and wider. Risk can be good for us if done right. So, as Karen J Hewitt says at the end of her book, "fasten your seat belt and get ready for the ride".

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