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Why do the super-rich take more risks than the rest of us ?

July 3, 2023 · Comment icon 10 comments

The Titan sub's passengers were taking a big risk. Image Credit: OceanGate
Psychologist Nigel Holt investigates why billionaires seem to put themselves in danger more than the average person.
Like most people, I watched the tragedy of the Titan submersible unfold with horror. We talked about it in cafes, jumped when news reports came in on our phones, and wondered why people would ever actually pay money to experience such risk. Are billionaires like this ultimately just vain or stupid? Or is reckless risk-taking in their DNA?

It turns out there is a good deal of research on why rich people take risks that encompasses a number of areas of psychology. One paper, published in Nature, investigated how the personalities of 1,125 people in Germany with a net wealth of at least €1 million (so not everyone was "super rich") differed from the rest of us.

The study nevertheless showed that people on these compratively higher incomes were typically extroverts and, importantly, tolerant of risk. That means they might indeed be more drawn to thrill seeking and risk-taking, in terms of adventuring and extreme sports.

As an expert, however, my next thought is one of those chicken and egg conundrums. What came first? The huge wealth or the specific personality make-up? Does the money shape the personality, or does the personality allow the person to develop such wealth?

The answer here is a little of both. A risk-taking personality can most likely help you make money. But, when you have acquired an enormous amount of wealth, you most likely also have a lot of security in your life - never having to worry about where your next meal will come from, or whether you'll afford heating your house in winter. Some may experience this as life being a little too safe.

The French sociologist Pierre Bordieau argued that our way of being in the world - our "habitus" - is part of who we are. People in distinct cultures or with specific histories tend to share a habitus - meaning society can ultimately shape the mind of a person.

Take, for example, how much money we have. The rich do not think of sportscars as unobtainable - more as a suggestion of what might look nice on their driveway. Their wealth in part shapes their view of the world and how they live in it. If taking risks is a part of the personality of the rich, it will be a relatively normal experience in their everyday engagement with the world.

But research has also shown that personality isn't set in stone - it changes over a lifetime in response to experiences. For example, a new life experience, such as moving away to university or having a child, may alter your world view in such a way that your personality and the way you interact with the world change.

If you take a lot of risks in your everyday life, this becomes a reflection of what makes you who you are - boosting your risk-taking personality trait, which leads to more risk-taking experiences, and so on. This may explain why many rich people end up becoming risk-takers, whether it is in their genes or not.

Authenticity

Rich people may view risk-taking rather differently to those of us, like me, who regard ourselves as risk averse.

Dangerous activities for me are far from my own personality. So, when I do find myself engaging in something potentially risky, outside my normal habitus experience, I feel very uncomfortable. For the risk averse, "living life to the full" does not require base-jumping or free-climbing - these things are inconsistent with their experience.
By this logic, it makes sense that the rich engage in risky experiences. Driving fast cars, skiing and skydiving are normal expressions of this sort of risk acceptance for a lot of people. But if you're very rich, even more extreme examples of very dangerous experiences open up, which may ultimately help them live an authentic life - being true to who they are.

Interestingly, a risk-averse form of living life authentically is not regarded with a great deal of social value. We often assume that a full life should obviously involve white-water rafting, horse riding and, if you can afford it, space flight.

Those who take risks are also often seen as desirable in business - as people who can move a company on. Again, risk-aversion is seen as less desirable here. Rather than viewing it as a reflection of solidity and stability, providing a calm and steadying influence, we often see it as holding things back.

I would argue that both ways of engaging with the world are perfectly valid and should be similarly valued. After all, our species has relied on a mix of the two to flourish: both explorers and risk assessors.

Eudaimonia

Capitalism is all about consumption - and it rules most of the world. From heavily branded handbags and sleek sportscars to expensive activities, it's what we do and what many of us value. We even consume to fulfil our existential desires.

What might those be? "Eudaimonia" is about living life to the full in a satisfying way. Aristotle described it as the very highest of human virtues - a positive and divine state of being. Epicurus, his contemporary, argued that pleasurable living is the most authentic way to describe eudaimonia.

As such, I would argue that rich, risk-taking people are simply consuming in a way that satisfies them as much as possible in terms of eudaimonia. The risk-averse ultimately do the same thing, but in a very different way. Both are living authentically, pleasurably and naturally, with reference to their habitus.

It's not weird that people would pay handsomely for the experience promised by Titan. Before we dismiss it on the grounds of greedy stupidity, we might want to consider the more respectable reasons behind such behaviour.

And if we want fewer accidents, we may want to consider how we as a society value risk-taking, and undervalue safety regulations, rather than blaming it on individuals who are just trying to live a fulfilling life - be they billionaires or otherwise.

Nigel Holt, Professor of Psychology, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (10)




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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by Piney 8 months ago
????? 
Comment icon #2 Posted by Stiff 8 months ago
My thoughts exactly.
Comment icon #3 Posted by Roshman 8 months ago
Because they have made lots of money and no longer care??
Comment icon #4 Posted by joseraul 8 months ago
Let's see them go to high school in inner city Baltimore.     But forreal, if there is a correlation, then my theory is the super wealthy do not pine for normal things since all needs are met/desires satisfied so there are no more surprises in the material world. And so yes they go for more risky behavior to hit the reward center in the brain. Also, because of their success and a life of minimal suffering they tend to believe themselves more invincible then say, the average person.
Comment icon #5 Posted by Roshman 8 months ago
The wealthy risk takers MIGHT argue that they made lots of money via 'smart' risk taking. Bill Gates et. al. are not all reckless!
Comment icon #6 Posted by Sir Wearer of Hats 8 months ago
The more money you have, the fewer people around you say “no”. 
Comment icon #7 Posted by George Ford 8 months ago
So it's apparently:- "Capitalism is all about consumption - and it rules most of the world. From heavily branded handbags and sleek sportscars to expensive activities, it's what we do and what many of us value. We even consume to fulfil our existential desires. What might those be? "Eudaimonia" is about living life to the full in a satisfying way. Aristotle described it as the very highest of human virtues - a positive and divine state of being. Epicurus, his contemporary, argued that pleasurable living is the most authentic way to describe eudaimonia." My take on it is that it was a mix of 'o... [More]
Comment icon #8 Posted by openozy 8 months ago
They think because they lead a charmed life they are invincible, nobody or anything will hurt me. I don't believe wealth equals common sense.
Comment icon #9 Posted by simplybill 8 months ago
I think for some people there’s an ingrained need for  discovery  that can now only be satisfied with the adrenaline rush of risk-taking, because most of the great discoveries are a thing of the past. There may never be another Roald Amundsen or John Powell. After Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Mount Everest, the throngs of people who have followed in their footsteps are basically tourists with no claim to fame for their accomplishments. Maybe the thrill of being ‘first’ in discovering or doing something new is now mainly in the realms of space exploration and molecular s... [More]
Comment icon #10 Posted by Shadowsfall 7 months ago
Read somewhere recently of a theory that they may have been alive after initial electrical malfunction.unable to loosen the weights so dived headfirst down to the bottom till implosion……scary **** no matter how rich u are.Seemingly now the Challenger disaster was off the same ilk….


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