Is Taking Healthy Risks Attractive?
Calling someone a coward or 'chicken' stopped being socially acceptable once we put a spotlight on peer pressure and bullying in the 80s, but that did not stifle desires to be accepted by one's peers. Social media has created a wormhole of voices by manipulating and expanding the human desire to be like and liked by the people next door to a 20 thousand-mile radius. People in the public eye who accept the stakes for making a good impression and work to showcase their best qualities or talents do so with the hope of being admired or chosen.
Whether it is your fashion-forward style, comedic timing, exceptional acting skills, emo attitude, or luxury lifestyle, it can be your ticket to headliner status with just one viral video on TikTok. So, what is it that makes us attractive to strangers? Easy. It is the same thing that makes us want to be liked by others: our undaunted vulnerability.
Recent editorials have posted calls for sex therapists and other relationship experts to confirm or debunk the assumption that taking [healthy] risks is sexy. As I thought about the best approach to offering insight into this question, I became more fixated on naming the ecological component and locating the moment we learn not to take risks. Is it at home? Church? In the classroom or with our friend groups? Is it the first time a child falls and scrapes a knee? After a love interest rejects us? Or the first time we're told something is too dangerous?
As the end of summer quickly approached, my family discussed the last activities we would do before my nieces and nephews returned to school. Unfortunately, because of hectic schedules, there was only one window that allowed almost everyone to come together: my sister's bridal shower. One of my sisters lives in Philadelphia and arranged to come home with her fur babies for the event. Our family chat thread was overflowing with excitement for her arrival, and the celebration, but the kids in our family were especially excited to meet Max and Star (the dogs). Their parents were less enthusiastic. While my immediate family is energetic, funny, and loving, we are far from being 'animal people.' My mother enjoys the company of most dogs and cats. At the same time, some of my siblings share an intense fear of animals, occasionally giving them supernatural strength when facing head-on encounters with four-legged creatures. In part, it prohibited us from having family pets. So, dogs coming to visit was a big deal.
The first twenty minutes of my encounter with Max and Star was frightening. I desperately tried to remind myself to be brave while watching their 40 to 50-lb. log-like bodies tumble out of the car. My sister was calm and in control, which gave me courage, but the size of one huskie is intimidating, and there were two. To my delight, my anxieties were unneeded. After the first night, I realized they were the sweetest fur babies I'd ever met and fell in love with them. Later, two of my nephews arrived, and the one-year-old could barely contain himself; he was so excited to meet them. He approached Max with complete confidence that they would be best friends, and even as his body shook from uncertainty, he stretched his hand to meet Max's nose. In thinking more about this interaction, I discovered it was a courageous and calculated risk for a one-year-old. He accounted for factors that, as an adult, I continue to struggle with. A quick take would note how he trusted his Aunt's relationship with the dog, and if something went wrong, she would keep him safe. He knew the dog was much bigger than him but proceeded, suspecting he would be friendly. While making these assumptions, he wagered it was worth the risks and happily embraced the beasts. This experience and many others suggest that the people around us during adolescence influence our likelihood of taking risks and how comfortable or safe we feel.
Befriending dogs is low-hanging fruit compared to some riskier behaviors people can engage in while trusting group thinking. Ironically, after successfully marketing smoking and drinking alcohol as socially acceptable and attractive behaviors for years, the United States shifted to a different story. On April 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed legislation officially banning cigarette ads on television and radio. The attack on drug use led to a series of initiatives to chart a new course that protected youth from health-damaging behaviors. In 1983, the Los Angeles School District and Police Department teamed up to launch the D.A.R.E. program that would later become a nationwide campaign targeting teenage drug use and community violence. Since then, schools and parenting groups have tried to continue preventive initiatives that protect youth from unsafe risk-taking behaviors through blogs, seminars, and school-based educational classes. Unsafe behaviors often include activities that could lead to outcomes like unprotected sex and teenage pregnancy, gang violence, truancy, breaking laws, and alcohol and drug abuse. Although these outcomes might be easy to pinpoint, we still struggle to thoughtfully name the 'unsafe activities' serving as gateways to these outcomes. While some parents believe any time youth spend gathered without adult supervision is hazardous and should be avoided, other parents support autonomy and allow youth space to become independent.
Today, both drug and alcohol use are standard behaviors included on television networks and streaming series. On-screen, characters do drugs alone, in groups, and even with family. The uncertainty around knowing what dynamics allow youth to craft unsafe ideas or behaviors has some researchers and program specialists questioning the goal of similar initiatives that share a 'don't do it because we said so' attitude rather than an approach rooted in teaching personal ethics and healthy everyday decision-making. Similar to fire safety tutorials. An approach centered on teaching youth to make sound judgments is based on a measurable system that utilizes critical thinking skills, follows a personal health ethic or moral belief, and one's faith system [when applicable]. If attempted, this approach may prove more productive for youth in maintaining their health in the long run.
Is there value in risk-taking behaviors?
In short, yes, but there is a vital qualifier. Neurological research targeting teens' risk-taking behaviors has led to two branches of theory to explain what happens emotionally and cognitively to teens that lead to participating in behaviors that put youth in danger. The neural underpinnings of the adolescent brain are currently being studied using two models: the systems model and the imbalance model. The systems model comprises two independent systems that service development differently. "Whereas the influence of the cognitive control system increases linearly during this period, the socioemotional system develops according to an inverted U-shaped function, peaking in early to middle adolescence and declining in influence thereafter." ¹ The socioemotional system is driven by a reward system that increases the likelihood of taking risks at this age because of the perceived reward (e.g., adrenaline or approval from peers) but will later decline due to the increase in the prefrontal cortex's (PFC) control over decision-making. The imbalance model interacts with both the cortical and subcortical areas and "focuses on development within each region and direct effects that the subcortical and cortical areas have on each other and on the individual's behavior" ² in addition to overseeing connectivity between the amygdala and part of the reward system. Underdeveloped reasoning skills in the PFC make youth (and even young adults) vulnerable to poor choices because reward-seeking systems drive their decisions.
In addition to thrill-seeking and peer influence, encouragement to participate in unsafe behaviors has become a standard component of storylines in mainstream entertainment. It’s no secret media has always played a dominant role in shaping habits. The intensity of influence has increased due to the popularity gained from participating in reality television shows like Real World, 16 and Pregnant, and social media trends like The Cinnamon Challenge. Seeing the tragic outcome following a dangerous choice is an expected part of on-screen entertainment. Risk-taking behaviors have also been sexualized to encourage deeper connections that invite viewers to see the characters/actors as relatable or worthwhile. Watching a person with a drug addiction drive recklessly on a motorcycle in the rain is fun and sexy, especially if they get to have sex afterward. Watching a person on television become a self-destructive serial killer is foreplay for couples enjoying a night at home. Media remains a leading influence in introducing risk-taking behaviors as entertainment and safe for you to watch occasionally as long as 'the character' is doing it and not you. But what happens when television shows like Euphoria and true crime podcasts gain more traction as mainstream forms of daily entertainment? Alone, they are cautionary tales, but when teenagers and young adults attempt to interpret or, worse, mirror the behaviors seen on-screen, what was entertaining becomes deadly.
Ignoring that several shows like Grown-ish and Euphoria attempt to reduce dangerous activities would be unfair. Most media-based approaches to counter-narratives of risky behaviors still manage to spend more time exploring them as cool and sexy before addressing health effects and negative consequences. Even the final discussion, where a character or actor explores the flaws that led to unsafe behaviors, is often unsatisfactory.
Why is taking risks attractive?
Our attraction to people who take risks is related to our assumption that the person is self-confident. Unlike participating in drug and alcohol abuse, the arousal experienced when witnessing unusual bravery like pro-golfer Cody Gribble's alligator encounter is natural; however, the attraction to such behavior should involve some reflection. Reflective questions are a great open-ended and nonjudgmental tool for exploring a thought or belief. Why do I think it's hot? Could he have been hurt? Should I try it? Questions like these resist impulsivity and allow identity formation and desires to become an interactive, thoughtful activity rather than passively absorbing trending behaviors and preferences. Thinking through your behaviors is a reminder that likeability and masking flaws don't need to be achieved by unhealthy risk-taking or substance use. After reflecting on the encounter, you might conclude tapping an alligator to get it to move is risky, but Cody Gribble remained in control and did it safely — -and that's attractive.
Healthy risks are rooted in understanding what makes one feel safe, remain in control, and bring personal pleasure and self-confidence. When this level of self-confidence aligns with one moment of action or willingness to allow others to see you honestly, it can be seen as wildly attractive. To develop an understanding, you must engage in activities that challenge your comfort zone but provide natural and secure risks.
For youth, this can be:
- playing or trying out for a new sport
- making a new friend
- volunteering for a summer internship in a foreign country
- running for a student leadership position
- performing in at a concert or local event
For adults, this can be:
- moving to a new city or country
- taking improv classes
- organizing a competitive sporting event
- speaking or presenting at a major conference
- starting a physical fitness training program
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Although our initial run-ins with risky behaviors vary, we know at some point, we approached a new challenge in complete confidence — although filled with uncertainty — and internalized that taking risks was too dangerous. Consequently, when we learn risks are too dangerous, we believe vulnerability makes us weird or weak; no one will want to be our friend, and we stop enjoying our lives. They were likely wrong whether the voice you hear before doing something risky is a parent, teacher, or friend. All risks are not dangerous. When we witness healthy risk-taking being modeled in our families or communities, we develop a mature gauge for determining appropriate risks, making us better people and — to some — attractive. There are plenty of natural ways to share your incredible personality with others without being extreme; just be vulnerable enough to try. Being vulnerable might be inconvenient at times, like when facing a wild predator, but it is the most attractive thing humans have to offer each other.
¹Camras, Linda A.. Emotional Development Across the Lifespan. United Kingdom: Guilford Publications, 2022, 129.