We were excited to see the results of major new research on how risk-taking propensity changes over an adult’s lifespan. The herculean task for all risk research is the uncertainty about the measure of risk. How do you attempt to measure an undefined variable? The study’s authors recognise the wide variations in how risk is conceptualised and, in their discussions, specifically ask the rhetorical question, ‘What is risk-taking?” Whilst they may not have anticipated these results, the Big 5 personality trait measures came shining through in their analysis explaining differences in people’s risk-taking behaviour, as they do so often in risk research.
Part of the problem has been an assumption that risk-taking is a simple unitary dimension – from risk averse to risk embracing. Our research behind the Risk Type Compass revealed the actual complexity of risk-taking. We found that each of the Big 5 personality factors makes its own coherent contribution to individual differences in risk-taking.
So, have we been looking through the wrong end of the telescope, starting with risk (which cannot be defined or measured) and failing to recognise the central role of personality? Our good fortune with the Risk Type Compass was to start from personality – the other end of the telescope. Everything else then begins to fall into place to explain differences in people’s risk-taking behaviour.