What Can Animals Teach Us about Risk Taking?

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Just as in the human world, there are those in the animal kingdom who “dare” and those who would rather maintain the status quo.

Researchers have shown that even among non-human species, there are shy individuals who tend to be the stay-at-home types whereas extroverts also exist who are the out-and-about thrill-seekers.

Without exception, the bolder the gorilla or fish, the more likely they are to take risks, and vice versa—the more withdrawn the individual in that particular species, the greater the chances are that they’ll be found in safer waters or near the nest.

And yet, both land animals and marine life need both types of characters. Someone has to look after the young ones while others go out and do the hunting or ensure that the territory is safe—not much different from humans at all.

Of course, researchers have also discovered that the risk takers, those who put themselves in danger frequently, tended to be the member of the species more likely to be maimed or even killed.

For example, guppies that bravely leave the pack to check out predators on behalf of the shoal tend to end up as the predator’s meal more frequently than the more reticent fish swimming happily along with their buddies. The theory of natural selection might hint that such risky behavior would eventually, and quite literally, die out.

But it turns out there is a trade-off. Brave male guppies are more attractive to females; those who survive get rewarded sexually and their risk-taking genes are passed on. It’s roughly equivalent to the human “man in uniform” syndrome that attracts females to those willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the greater good.

There may be another upside to risk-taking, too. An 18-year long study on primates in North American zoos and sanctuaries by Dr. Alex Weiss School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences in Edinburgh, Scotland showed that outgoing orangutans tended to live as much as 11 years longer on average than their introverted counterparts.

Why should that be? Weiss’s study indicated that the bold-natured ones were more sociable and curious. They played more and were therefore happier. In other words they had a vested interest in living longer.

While animal studies serve as a warning that being too bold can be dangerous and even life-threatening, they also demonstrate that not taking enough risks could mean missing out on rewards from sex to longevity. As the Roman playwright Terence put it in the 2nd century BCE, “Fortes fortuna adiuvat” … “Fortune favors the brave.”

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