Risk taking as a skill-based measure and relation to reward seeking and promotive development in youths and adults


This project will use a new measure developed in our lab to identify people who are more skilled at risk taking, and use it to determine whether being a skilled risk taker buffers against the likelihood of dangerous risk taking, and can steer those who are most thrill-seeking towards more positive forms of risk taking behaviour (i.e., positive activities with an element of risk but without leading to personal harm and/or legal entanglements).

Problem behaviours in young people are often associated with negative risk taking.  By the time they reach 28 years of age, the economic cost of these problem behaviours is 3.5 times that of young people without such behaviours, and it can exceed £1 million over one lifetime of unresolved problems. A promising avenue for understanding negative risk taking and shifting it in the direction of more positive risk taking is to focus on the difference between skilled and unskilled risk-takers. Skill-based models of risk taking may be especially useful for understanding and modifying the behaviour of certain subgroups identified by their reward seeking preferences, which have been identified as an important factor in adolescent decision making. However, before pursuing this possibility, we need to know whether those who avoid negative risky behaviour do so by being better skilled; we need to know whether particular subgroups of reward seekers engage in greater or lesser risk taking behaviour depending on their ability to measure expected values of risk; and we need to know whether those who are the most avid reward seekers can benefit from learning how to be more skilled in their risk taking, choosing positive risk taking over negative risk taking.

This project will address these questions by testing the novel idea that the risk taking that young people do can result in positive and negative risk taking based on their level of risk taking skill. We will test this idea by measuring consistency in responding to probabilities of reward and punishment, a new skill-based measure of risk taking developed in our lab, and using it to test whether people who are better at calculating risks in different risky scenarios are more likely to choose positive risk scenarios than negative ones. We will also test whether learning to become more skilled in calculating risks leads to people gaining the sought-after benefits of risk taking, such as thrills, self-worth, and a sense of achievement, by engaging in positive risk taking.

The proposed research will guide theories of adolescent risk taking by providing a new understanding of the factors that lead to adolescents selecting dangerous, thrilling activities that may cross into illegal behaviour, and results in the development of a strengths-based model of risk taking that will allow for adolescents to become better risk takers, ultimately trading negative risks for positive ones. 

Dissemination will focus on contributory factors for risky decision making in young people, where it is envisaged that high-impact publications will result. For example, I regularly publish in Development and Psychopathology, and Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. I will use my contacts with health practitioners from the National Health Service, young offending services, and community safety partnerships for the PhD student to disseminate findings to interested parties who can turn research into action. Thus, the PhD student will help these organizations direct resources to the most effective interventions based on research:  that is, interventions that focus on rewards and costs involved with different activities adolescents and young people might be attracted to. Positive activities with an element of risk (but without being dangerous) may attract people, if we can market the activities appropriately for young people with a propensity for engaging in dangerous or illegal risk taking.

To apply for this opportunity please send a CV, cover letter (with research statement), and references to  with the email subject title as ’Risk Taking studentship’.