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What Does Your Brain Have Against Risk?

How to Fight Your Brain’s Natural Desire to Avoid Risk

The human brain has evolved over centuries to become what it is today. While you may have control over many areas of your life, you’re ultimately limited by certain neurological aspects of your brain. This is certainly true when it comes to risk.

Risk and the Human Brain

While scientists and researchers have come a long way in their understanding of how the brain processes risk and makes decisions, there still isn’t a clear consensus on the specifics of how it happens. However, one of the best explanations comes from Harvard instructor David Ropeik, who breaks risk processing down into a chain reaction that involves five “parts” of the brain:

  • When a situation is presented to the brain, the thalamus reports the news. It gathers the basic information – typically who what, when, where, and how – and passes these details along to the amygdala.
  • The amygdala is known as the gut reactor. This part of the brain is responsible for emotional responses and helps you react within milliseconds of being presented with information. Interestingly enough, the amygdala tends to be hardwired based on gender. Men tend to react with “fight or flight” responses, while women are more likely to “tend or befriend.”
  • Roughly 22 milliseconds after you’ve registered a potential trouble or challenge, your cortex starts to reason through the situation. The cortex breaks the issue down and sends various signals to other regions of the brain to come up with a solution.
  • In people who are ambitious and tend to embrace a “go-getter” mentality, the ventral striatum shows increased activation. This is the part of the brain that’s involved in risk-taking.
  • In people who tend to be more conservative in their thinking and decision-making, the insula region is ignited. At this point, cognitive reasoning takes over and weighs all of the pros and cons.

The problem is that the amygdala is biologically hardwired. You’re either inclined to make decisions with the ventral striatum portion of the brain or the insula region. As a result, you likely err on the side of being a daredevil who takes too much risk, or someone who tries to insulate yourself against all risk.

But there is another portion of the brain that’s involved in decision making.

“It’s the neocortex, a more advanced part of the brain that developed very recently, evolutionarily speaking, and only appears in mammals,” explains Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. “It’s intelligent and analytic. It can reason. It can make more nuanced trade-offs. It’s also much slower.”

In other words, the human brain has two systems for reacting to risk. There’s the primitive intuitive system and a much more advanced analytic system. Your brain naturally relies on the intuitive system, but with a little effort and discipline, you can fire up the advanced analytic system and override your initial gut reaction. It’s hard for the neocortex to contradict the amygdala, but it can happen.

3 Tips for Overcoming Your Fear of Risk

While the brain is designed in a manner to avoid foolish risk – such as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute – it often takes it too far. This prevents people from pursuing good endeavors that feature some risk, such as financial investing.

While no amount of analytical reasoning is going to get you to jump out of a plane with nothing stopping you from death, there are plenty of things you can do to embrace calculated risk.

Here are some helpful tips:

1. Fake It Until You Make It

You may have to fake it until you make it. “It sounds cliché but it holds a boatload of truth,” Christina Kellagher writes for Tiny Buddha. “Use reverse psychology on yourself. You’re your own worst enemy. Tell yourself and others that you are confident about taking the risk and notice how your apprehension will dissolve.”

2. Surround Yourself With Risk-Takers

If all of your friends and family members are risk-averse, you’re probably going to be risk-averse as well. The best way to get out of your comfort zone is to surround yourself with risk-takers who force you to get uncomfortable.

3. Identify the WPO

Any time you’re faced with a risk, conduct an exercise where you come up with the worst possible outcome (WPO) in your head. Most of the time, you’ll realize that the WPO really isn’t that bad. Furthermore, the chances of the WPO coming true are typically quite low.

Start Embracing Risk Today

Risk is not something to be avoided. While it
naturally makes us uncomfortable, a life without risk is boring, unproductive,
and (arguably) unhealthy. Without risk
you wouldn’t take a chance and ask someone out on a date, start a business, try
a new hobby, or make an investment. The key is to take calculated risks that give you the best chance of being successful.
This is how you win in li

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