Why Do People Take Part In Risky Behavior?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated October 19, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Risky behavior can feel thrilling, but it can also be nerve-racking or carry consequences. Adolescents often exhibit risky behavior, but risk-taking can continue well into adulthood, and some people engage in risky behavior throughout their lives. At times, there may be valid reasons to take risks. However, risk-taking can also signal anti-social behavior and can cause harm.

People Engage In Risky Behavior For Many Reasons

Reasons Behind Risky Behavior

There could be multiple reasons why someone might engage in risky behavior. Some of us may develop these behaviors in childhood, while others might take risks following trauma or as a defense mechanism to avoid being hurt. 

Social Bonding

Risk-taking behavior often begins during the teenage years. Teenage pranks can include everything from spray-painting the walls of rival schools and dropping cherry bombs in toilets to stealing Halloween candy or covering front yards in toilet paper. Years later, friends may laugh about these pranks as adults—even if they caused property damage or emotional distress. Although we often know better as adults, we might still defend ourselves by remembering the fun or laughs we had. 

As teenagers, we might also skip school or take a vehicle for a joyride without acknowledging the consequences or implications. However, growing up, we may not consider this risk-taking acceptable. If we have children, we may not want our children to partake in the same behaviors we did. 

What may have seemed like simple social bonding many years ago can become unacceptable behavior down the road. As adults, we may no longer feel so self-absorbed and exclusive. We might become aware of the world around us and how our actions affect the emotional well-being of others. We may no longer wish to destroy personal or public property because we feel a degree of responsibility toward society.

These changes in perspective often occur as we enter our twenties. At this point, our brains are nearly completely developed. Therefore, we may awaken to a new awareness of the world around us. We might become more social and curious about others. 

For many, partaking in risky behaviors is a temporary thing. It may be driven by peer influence or a desire to make a friend laugh. In some cases, risky behaviors driven by social influence may be classified as bullying if targeted at someone else or a group of people. For other individuals, risky behavior may continue into adulthood and cause societal concerns. 

Patterns Of Risk

Many people have healthy social skills and social lives by the time they reach their 30s. Studies indicate that home-schooled adolescents can also develop well-socialized skills

However, some adolescents may face challenges when transitioning into adulthood. Anti-social behaviors such as burglary, theft, and violence can affect our lives, reputation, and, at times, our criminal records.

Early indicators of a challenging young life may appear as young as six or seven. Maladjusted children may exhibit bullying behavior, be cruel to animals, or steal from other children.

Similarly, early indications of a self-harming child can be found in children who pick at scabs, bite their fingernails down to the cuticle, chew on their lips, or bite themselves.

Adolescents who self-harmed as children may take their injuries to the next level as they grow. They may start cutting or burning themselves, drive recklessly, or engage in unprotected sex. Left unchecked, anti-social and self-harming patterns of behavior may persist in adulthood.

Children who isolate themselves early in life are not necessarily at high risk for anti-social or self-harming behavior. Children can be uncomfortable when they're in unusual environments. In these cases, they may choose to isolate themselves because they're confused.

Furthermore, studies have found that some children are born naturally shy. They may cling to their parent or guardian for longer than average, learning to talk later and preferring imaginative play to the company of others. 

Shy children may also tend to acquire friends at a less steady pace. In adulthood, they might exhibit introverted personalities, though they may be friendly once the ice breaks.


Risk-Taking Genes

Some individuals seem to be born risk-takers. As children, they may be the ones who take the double dare to sled down the tallest, steepest hill. As thrill lovers, they may push the limits on where they can go and what they can do.

When it comes to behavior, there's a debate about what's shaped by nature and what's shaped by nurture. According to a 2019 study, risk tolerance and risky behaviors may be linked to genetic variants. Multiple children born in the same household may be treated equally, but only one may exhibit early high-risk behavior. 

On the other hand, people who grew up with risk-taking parents may have a broader view of what society considers "risky." Therefore, they may engage in high-risk behaviors because it could feel like the standard. 

For example, individuals who volunteer for the military or the police force or who choose to be heavy equipment operators, firefighters, and divers may not perceive their occupations as high risk.

Many people may also see a calculated risk with an end goal: the common good of society. Their early childhood may have been spent exploring caves, rummaging around in abandoned buildings, and picking their way through construction sites. 

When these individuals become adults, they may attract other risk-takers who love an adrenaline rush and channel it into healthy pursuits. Although they may exhibit high-risk behaviors, their boldness could benefit society. Studies show that individuals who take healthy risks are often happier people

However, sometimes risk-taking may not stem from family traditions, exposure to high-risk jobs, or an apparent genetic disposition for taking risks. In these cases, there may be something else at play.

Some individuals may exhibit impulsive behavior as adults, such as neglecting to use proper safety equipment or testing the limits of the machinery they are using. They may disguise their impulse to self-harm with carelessness in a high-risk environment.

Impulsivity may also manifest as reckless behavior toward others, causing near-accidents, costly damage, or injuries. Repeatedly endangering others in these ways could be a sign of an underlying mental health concern, such as an axis II personality disorder. Repeatedly endangering others can signify an underlying mental health concern. 

The Effects Of Risk-Taking

People may take part in risky behaviors for many reasons. Often, they can be traced back to early childhood, where a person may have encountered various heroes, daredevils, or rebels through popular media, comics, and movies. 

Children can also tend to idolize the risk-takers in their social groups. As they grow older and their need for self-identity becomes more robust, they may be easily persuaded by the strongest and boldest among them.

Harmful risk-taking behaviors may include risks that could endanger others or yourself, such as:

  • Drinking and driving
  • Having unsafe/unprotected sex
  • Using unsafe tools to use substances 
  • Driving without a seatbelt
  • Impulsively spending money 
  • Partaking in physical fights 

Positive risk-taking behaviors may include things such as: 

  • Trying a new food 
  • Traveling to a new country 
  • Trying out for a high-stakes job 
  • Trying an adrenaline-seeking activity like skydiving 
  • Going on exciting rides at an amusement park
  • Making sacrifices to follow a goal 
  • Deciding to change your life for the better 

Unhealthy risk-taking may begin in early childhood as one of the signs of a self-harming personality disorder or early anti-social personality disorder indicator. It can also be a part of what the child sees as a familiar environment.

Getting Support 

If you're taking a lot of risks and are concerned about the consequences, you may start by trying to understand your behavior. Writing about your thoughts and actions in a journal can help you learn more about your potential motives.

If your behavior is causing you stress, you may consider breathing exercises. These may be effective because they can be simple to learn and implement into your life. These techniques may also offer clarity when you're thinking about taking a risk.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
People Engage In Risky Behavior For Many Reasons

If you're considering a risky behavior, you may also decide to try exercise. Walking, climbing stairs or lifting weights may be beneficial activities. You can use this time to clear your mind and consider the implications of your urges instead of letting influences take over.

Counseling For Risk-Taking Urges 

It may be worth talking to a counselor to help you work through risky urges or behaviors and understand why you desire to take part in them. Through therapy, you may be able to identify ways to foster better habits, increase self-confidence, and limit anxiety and stress.

An online therapist may help clarify where anti-social and risk-taking behaviors stem from through psychological intervention. A 2017 study has shown that internet-based interventions effectively treat risky behaviors, such as gambling. 

Internet-based therapy can have several benefits for clients. It can be a convenient form of mental health care, as participants may join a session from their homes. Studies show that many individuals are more comfortable at home, which may increase comfort during treatment. 

In-person or online counseling may help us disentangle our risk-taking behavior from our thoughts and childhood experiences. We may be able to better understand ourselves through the guidance of a licensed professional. Consider reaching out for support on an online platform such as BetterHelp if you're ready to get support. 


Understanding risky behavior can help us prevent it if it's putting ourselves and others in harm's way. If we're consistently engaging in risky behavior, connecting with a qualified therapist may help.

Target disruptive behavior in therapy

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