"The Art of Risk" - In Conversation with Kayt Sukel

Of all the books that I have read lately, one of the most undeniably interesting, engaging and eye-opening has to be Kayt Sukel’s most recent book, The Art of Risk (National Geographic, 2016). In it, she takes a closer look at just what risk really is — from its various definitions to how we view risk — as well as how a multitude of factors — genes, gender, emotions, experience, practice, familiarity and more — impact how we perceive and vet risks and the decisions that we make, and ultimately the ways in which each and every one of us can ourselves become better risk-takers and decision-makers. Read on to see what she had to say.

Kayt Sukel (Photo: Dave Dillon)

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): Personally, I found the book to be a fascinating read. While you do get into at least some of your reasons for exploring the topic in the book itself, I was wondering if you could address the origins of the idea for the book for those who haven’t picked up a copy yet.


Kayt Sukel (KS): I basically fell into what I called a ‘mid-life crisis in reverse.’ Instead of going off on wild adventures and getting myself a sports car and a boy toy, I was doing a lot of sitting on my butt. I’d always been known as a risk-taker. In fact, it was a big part of my identity, and I had attributed much of my success in life to the fact that I was willing to march to the beat of my own drummer and kind of did things in a contrarian way. So, I wanted to better understand it. Was risk-taking really this big part of my success? And, if so, how could I get it back? I’m a brain nerd. I worked in neuroscience labs for a while, and I just find neuroscience to be a fascinating approach to some of these age-old questions. I thought maybe there were going to be a few answers for me in there.


AD: And you sort of begin — in part — by making this distinction between this sort of ‘conventional’ idea of risk, which is this sort of economic definition, versus the neuroeconomic one.


KS: Yeah. Well, [the term] ‘risk’ is used in a variety of ways. The definitions [certainly] don’t stop at the economic versus the neuroeconomic. People talk about ‘risk’ in epidemiology in terms of stopping the spread of disease, they talk about it in business in terms of protecting the bottom line, and they talk about it in education. They really talk about it everywhere. Everybody uses the same word but the meaning that they intend changes a little bit. I think it’s pretty fascinating, because for so long we’ve associated risk-taking with things like sensation-seeking or impulsivity or danger or opportunity. Certainly there are overlaps in all of those things, but how do we break it down to a simple explanation of what risk is? Ultimately, it is just a decision-making process and not a trait. That’s the other thing we do. We talk about it as if it’s a personality trait — ‘He’s a risk-taker’ or ‘She’s a risk-taker’ — as if they’re different from us and so we never have to deal with it, which is not the case. It’s pretty simple. It’s really just a simple decision-making process, where the outcome of your decision could be potentially negative — and that means risk is part and parcel of every decision you make, every single day. That’s something as silly as whether or not to have that fourth cup of coffee — even knowing that by two o’clock you’ll probably have the jitters or it’ll stop you from going to sleep that night — or whether it’s throwing yourself out of an airplane or taking a new job on the other side of the country.


AD: Yeah. I thought that was really important. You know, this idea that ‘risk’ isn’t just swimming with sharks or signing on with the Discovery Channel to see if you can survive naked in the wilderness or something.


KS: No. It really is just a simple part of everyday decision-making. That’s one of those overlaps that I’m talking about. Now, there are some people who just welcome more stress in their lives. They need more stimulation in order to be more motivated, in order to be happy. Those are the people that we see ending up on these TV shows or they’re the BASE jumpers or serial entrepreneurs or the neurosurgeons, because they can handle those levels of stress. In fact, they tend to seek them out. But it’s slightly different than risk-taking, because obviously what we see is that for many of these people, it’s a very healthy exercise. They actually don’t see what they do as risky. I interviewed a variety of different kinds of risk-takers for the book, and literally every every one said some version of ‘I am not a risk-taker.’ They don’t see themselves that way, because in their area of expertise, they know it inside out. They’re very thoughtful, they’re very prepared. So, they understand that viewed from the outside, jumping out of the plane may look pretty risky, but when you actually break it down and look at their training and experience and preparation, the residual risk is actually quite small — especially when you have the level of experience that they do. That fascinated me. There was just a recent study that came out the other week that talks about risk-taking being contagious. I sort of take issue with the use of the word ‘contagious,’ because familiarity really is key. A lot of work looking at why some people take risks and others don’t really comes down to how familiar they happen to be with that particular risk.

I think the simplest example is the subway in New York or the El in Chicago. I mean, people who live there take it all the time and don’t think anything about it. If you have somebody who’s from the country, they don’t want to take the subway. They think that taking the train is basically an invitation to be mugged. Then, when you turn it around and you have people who’ve lived in the city all their life, and you put them behind the wheel of a car, they freak out. And they’re like ‘Wait, what’s the big deal? It’s just driving a car.’ So, familiarity really changes the way that you perceive and then approach different risks. The more familiar we are, the more experience we have, the less risky something seems. And that is all. And the less risky it likely is.


AD: Having only lived in a major city or the nearby suburbs of a major city, I’m not sure how I’d fair in a rural setting, either. 


KS: Yeah. A friend of mine is from New York and she had to rent a car — I want to say it was in Wisconsin or Minnesota, I don’t remember where it was — but she had to go visit some pretty rural hospitals, and she said ‘These roads. They’re not marked. How can you find anything? They’re not marked.’ 


AD: Thank goodness for GPS, that’s all I can say. I wouldn't be able to get along without it, either, in that kind of a situation. And, speaking of familiarity and practice and all of that, you also say that what is viewed as ‘normal’ within your social networks also has this tendency to change your perspective.


KS: So, certainly we talk a lot about teenagers being the ultimate risk-takers — and they are. They really have a brain set-up which optimizes them to be very motivated and to really push their limits. That’s important, because that teaches them how to grow into thoughtful, capable adults. They need that motivation. They need that biological push to get out there in the world and, basically, to learn all the things that they need to know in order to become adults — but what happens  is that they look a lot to their peers. Studies have shown that they are much more likely to engage in riskier behaviors when in a group. Of course we love to say that we already know that they’re kind of their own weird little group, but there have been decades of research on groupthink that shows that — especially when we become really enveloped in a specific kinds of groups that are important to us — we also kind of change the way that we vet risks. Even with parenting or whatever, we worry about what the neighbors are going to think if we let our kids run around after dark, or we worry about how things might look at work if we pierce our nose or if we speak up in a meeting. So, even these social connections we have in life help us make sense of the world, help us to figure out what’s valuable to us and what is important to us. These groups help take care of us and we take care of them. They help keep us healthy and alive, but that also means they’re going to have a lot more influence than we may realize over what risky decisions we make.


AD: And you say that in spite of common wisdom being that a lot of the problem teenagers encounter in life has to do with the fact that they’re not thinking things through thoroughly enough, in fact it’s kind of the exact opposite. Everything requires more thought for them — or it’s a different sort of thought process.


KS: Right. They don’t have the experience, so they can’t really fall back on automatic thinking. They’re trying to puzzle things out, reason it out. For adults, the problem comes in once we get some experience. We try to apply fairly specific experiences in a lot of different areas. We get to the point as we age where we start to take fewer risks. While a lot of us want to say that it’s just because we’re older and we know better — that there’s too much at stake and can’t do whatever it may be — what a lot of researchers are finding is that if older people would take a step back and say ‘Wait a minute. Why am I automatically saying no? Is this something that might bring me some joy? If there was a negative outcome, would the loss really be too great to bear?’, if they were willing to take a few more risks, they would do much better — whether it’s a monetary gamble in a laboratory test, or they’re out in the world, at work, in life or what have you.

"The Art of Risk" (National Geographic, 2016)

AD: I just found the contrast between the two so interesting — so striking, really — particularly this idea that perhaps there really could be some benefit to taking a little bit more of that risk. Obviously, I’m not saying to throw caution to the wind, but just getting outside of your comfort zone every now and then.


KS: Yeah. You have to find a happy medium. One of the things about teenagers is they have so much motivation and they really do just believe in this unfulfilled possibility. What that does is it allows them to really get out there, to experience things, to try things over and over again —  to fall down seven times and get up an eighth. That’s why it’s such a period of unprecedented learning. As adults, there’s this idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and we’re learning that is not the case. The individuals who are still out there who are embracing some novelty in their lives, who are finding a way to make room for some of that unbridled possibility, are more motivated, more joyful and age in a healthier fashion. So, of course, it’s the chicken and egg problem, right? Are they doing these things because they feel good, or are they feeling good because they’re doing these things? But I think that there’s no downside to pushing the envelope every now and again, to trying to add a little bit more healthy risk into your life.


AD: And that is part of how you grow as an individual.


KS: It really is the only way to learn and build your skill sets in different areas. If you never get off the easy climbing wall, you’re never going to get better. You’re never going to be able to sync up your mind and body to reach your goals. You’re basically going to leave yourself stuck on the easy climbing wall.


AD: You also discuss gender as a factor in risk-taking and decision-making, which I found fascinating. For example, you basically say that while men may be more willing or more likely to take financial risks, whereas females may be more willing or more likely to take social ones, that may in part be because historically women typically weren’t the ones allowed to handle finances.


KS: Well, and I think that this is something that is going to change dramatically. Certainly you cannot dismiss culture and societally transmitted information. Again, as we’re learning, this experience and familiarity is so important in learning how to take healthy risks. If you don’t have the opportunities to partake in those activities — whether it be investing or graduating with a computer science degree — you’re never going to do it well. So, I think that there is a bias in a lot of this research that’s been done in the past, just based on the culture and society. It’s really hard to tease apart how much of it is biology and how much of it is environment, because there have been such hard and fast rules for what is acceptable for women to do and not do. I find it interesting that recent studies that look at things like partying behaviors or subcultures find that women are now engaging in those kinds of risky behaviors at the same levels as men and they’re not apologizing for it. So, I’ll be be very curious to see how some of our ideas may change over the next decade or so.


AD: Right. And it’s kind of shocking just how prevalent or engrained some of these sexist attitudes have been, particularly in certain areas, so it’s wonderful to see these ideas and attitudes really evolve. For example, someone once expressed to me their feelings that men are typically somehow inherently better when it comes to math and science, and as we’re very clearly seeing that is simply untrue. It’s not about your gender.


KS: Right. Yeah. There’s a lot of that, and I don’t think that people are even necessarily aware. There’s this idea that you’re supposed to be a good girl and be ladylike, and so it’s a lot harder to just roll up your jeans and throw yourself on a skateboard or to try snowboarding or BASE jumping. But certainly, as those opportunities are coming up, and women are getting chances to try these things, they’re showing that they can more than hold their own.


AD: I just thought that’s an interesting point, because it goes to show how a society’s views can really affect things.


KS: Well — and of course we already know this — for every effect that we see, there’s always going to be an interaction of our biology and our environment. It’s very difficult to effectively take the two apart.


AD: Then you also discuss the role of genes and how they might come into play — especially where this idea of the existence of a ‘risk gene’ is concerned.


KS: Again, I think that a lot of us have different baselines. A lot of the time, the news will say things like ‘the risk-taking gene’ or ‘the warrior gene,’ and it’s never that simple. What genes do is code for a protein, and then that particular protein interacts in probably a million — if not a billion — different processes across the body in different ways. I think certainly having a different genetic makeup may make you more inclined to want to have more stimulation in life. So, you want to find activities that give you a certain amount of stimulation — that give you those feeling of intensity and fear — and may draw you to extreme sports or careers with more stress or what have you. Others need things to be a little bit more calm. I think that some of us — because of our genetic makeup — are going to be able to deal with stress more easily and others can’t. Some can be really good regulators. They know when to say no and when to say yes, and certainly biology is going to play a role in that, but it’s never going to be just our genes because the way that our genes are expressed can change. We’re learning through the study of epigenetics that when it comes to a single gene, our environment can make changes to where, when and how it’s expressed in the body. Ultimately, those little things are going to change our behaviors.


AD: Which just seems to serve to emphasize how reducing it all down to something like the ‘risk gene’ would be dismissing the true complexity, to say the least.


KS: Yeah, although we don’t want a complex answer, right? We would love if there were just a ‘risk-taking gene’ and a ‘smart gene’ and a ‘tall gene.’


AD: Ours is definitely a society with an appetite for a good sound bite. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way that you can explain things — at least not accurately.


KS: We want these things to be simple, to be really bite-sized and easy to chew. Science, especially as technology is advancing, is not giving us those kinds of answers. It’s just more complex than that. While it may be kind of harder to explain, what it does is give us a lot more room to explain a wide range of behaviors and disease states and health states, and to really understand how certain biological makeups can get us from point A to point B.


AD: I also found your look at how emotions come into play — or color — our perception of risk and influences our decision-making pretty intriguing.


KS: Well, emotions are really important. They help us take stock of what’s happening in the environment, but what they also do is change the way that the brain assesses a particularly risky situation. So, I think you have to understand that both stress and emotion can change the way that we perceive things — sometimes in quite dramatic ways. By understanding that, I think it can make you make smarter decisions when you do find yourself in the position of being under chronic stress at work, or if you just broke up with your boyfriend and now — all of a sudden — your decision-making isn’t as optimal as it once was. I think it’s an important thing to understand.


AD: I mean there’s probably so much more of your book that I could — and would love to — discuss. It really is just such a fascinating, eye-opening read, but what would you say is the main message or what do you hope is the main takeaway for readers?


KS: I think the main thing for me is that we spend so much time talking about risk in terms of the negatives. What we don’t see is that it also brings with it a lot of opportunities. If we can better understand the way that our brain both vets and approaches risk, we can use that to our advantage. When we decide that risk is this big scary thing — that it’s best left avoided — we make it more unmanageable than it needs to be. So, a basic understanding of what risk is and how it really can influence the way that we approach decisions is, I think, a benefit to anyone — whether your long terms goals are climbing the tallest peaks in the world or just trying to get that promotion at work.



Science writer Kayt Sukel has tackled topics as far-flung as out-of-body experiences; computer models of schizophrenia; and, in her first book, This Is Your Brain on Sex, the neuroscience of love and attraction. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, New Scientist, USA Today, and the Washington Post. She lives in Houston, Texas. You can find out more about Kayt and all of her work, as well as upcoming events, on her website.


Upcoming events in the Chicago area include:


May 14, 2016: Chicago Science Festival, in Chicago, at 3 PM


May 19, 2016: Reading/signing at the Book Cellar, 4736 - 38 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, at 7 PM


For additional events taking place in other cities, log onto her Events page.

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