Miriam Riss (1997) Dynamics of Risk Taking: Attitudes, Dispositions and Defenses

The purpose of this research is to study the attitude toward risk-taking from a psychoanalytical standpoint and to explore factors, which might be related to that phenomenon. More specifically, to see whether risk-taking behavior is related to such variables as fear of narcissistic injury, need for control, and fear of object loss (abandonment). Other variables such as tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty are also considered.

Despite the importance of this topic and its widespread relevance, little has been written specifically about risk taking and few systematic studies have been undertaken.

Since risk involves many aspects of everyday living, understanding disposition toward risk-taking, clearly. Is desirable. To the extent to which the variables selected influence disposition to risk taking, studying them in terms of their origin and function in the psychic economy is important.

Peoples attitude toward risk taking cannot easily be identified, classified, or categorized. Attitudes have an affective component, an action component, an ideational component and may be, to varying degrees, unconscious. Risk taking is a complex and multi-dimensional construct.

Risk taking can be defensive, just as aggression, optimism or psychological–mindedness can be a defense. Perception of risk in the risk taker may differ from perception of risk in the risk observer.

Objective risk must be distinguished from intrapsychic risk. One’s attitude toward may, for example, embody denial, disregard of risk, displacement of risk, omnipotence regarding risk, confusion, or personification of risk (for example: as a friend, foe or terrifying monster).

Studies discuss selective aspects of the question. For example, Steenkamp and Baumgartner (1992) studied the relation between optimum stimulation level (OSL) and risk taking. Also, studies explore the question from the viewpoint of different perspectives and disciplines. Miller (1994) discussed profound dread of abandonment, annihilation, death, hostility, loss of objects and loss of love, dissolution of self-esteem and rejection in connection with the pre-Oedipal derivatives of fear of success.

Some aspects of the question are yet to be explored further. For instance, it seems that perfectionists are not risk takers; people with injured ego’s shy away from taking risks; the “Archie Bunker” type personality is not a risk taker. That is, individuals who need certainty are not risk takers.

Some aspects of the question are common knowledge to psychoanalysts: for example, the realization that psychopaths often live on the edge to feel alive or that the individual with a strong tendency to destroy himself may act nonchalant toward risk. In this paper I will examine a number of studies focusing on risk-taking behavior; studies dealing with the consequences of risk taking will not be included.

The question has emerged from an initial interest in varieties of self-destructive behavior and excessive risk taking. It metamorphosed from a study of the pleasure in such behaviors to a formulation involving literary figures to its present form.

This study will be a hypothesis-generating, relationship searching study. The aim is to develop links among the variables and to describe the relationships that are found.

The writer will not focus on specific areas of risk taking (sexual risk taking, for example) nor closely study specific behaviors, defenses or delusions (such as gambling, where loss is attributed to chance, winning to skill, and the delusion “I know what’s going on”), nor pursue other linkages (for instance, the discovery by Steele (1986) that drinking increases risk taking). Whether or not behavior is risky is also not the concern.