Scientists don't agree on all the areas of the brain that are involved in risk assessment, but there is some consensus, including that some brains are inherently better wired for risk taking. David Ropeik, a Harvard instructor and author of How Risky Is It, Really?, breaks down the landscape for this chain reaction.
1. Thalamus: The Assessor
When a situation presents itself, the thalamus is your news reporter. It soaks up the basics—who, what, where, when, why—and then kicks the info over to the amygdala.
2. Amygdala: The Gut Reactor
In just a few milliseconds, your amygdala, which is responsible for emotional responses, reacts to the situation—and it happens before your cortex, which is responsible for decision making, has even gotten the news. You can see where this is going.
Reactions split on gender lines. A University of Southern California study found that men tend to react with fight or flight, but women are more likely to "tend or befriend"—that is, be more nurturing. "From an evolutionary stand-point, taking risks under stress may be less beneficial for females, especially if they are caring for offspring," says study author Nichole Lighthall.
3. Cortex: The Reasoner
Around 22 milliseconds after you've registered trouble, your cortex starts reasoning through the situation. The cortex breaks it down and sends signals to other regions of the brain to determine a solution.
4. Ventral Striatum:
The Go-Getter People who show increased activation in the ventral-striatal region of the brain (which is involved in emotional responses) tend to be more willing to take risks, according to a Stanford University study. Participants in the study were monitored while making investment risks.
5. Insula: The Soft-Stepper
People who show an increased activation in the insula region of the brain (which is associated with cognitive reasoning) tend to make more conservative decisions, according to the same study.
So if we're all hard-wired, can we change how we react to risk?
"That's really the million-dollar question!" says Joshua Weller, a researcher at the Decision Science Research Institute. "It can be difficult to do, especially if the benefits of engaging in the risky activity are really strong. I would think that one can change their preference for risk, but to make a lasting change, a person would need to repeatedly and consistently approach risky choices in the same manner."
A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.