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Humans' response to risk can be unnecessarily dangerous, finds Tel Aviv University study

The traffic light ahead of you is turning yellow. Do you gun the engine and speed through the intersection, trusting that others will wait for their green, or do you slow down and wait your turn?

That depends more on experience than personality, according to new research from Tel Aviv University. Arnon Lotem, a behavioral ecologist from the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University, reports in the prestigious journal Nature that people adopt risk-taking behaviors similar to those of animals like rats and bees. And this behavior, Prof. Lotem and his colleagues say, might not prepare humankind for the modern dangers we face every day like crossing the street, accepting a high-risk mortgage, or driving on the freeway.

Lotem believes that our risk-taking behavior had its advantages when we were living as cave-dwellers, but that it poses new and potentially dangerous challenges in our modern technology-driven world.

Feeling Risky

"People want to know how people make decisions, whether it's how you drive your car, or whether to invest in a mortgage. It's important to understand when and how we make those decisions, to understand the type of errors people are prone to make," says Prof. Lotem.

"What we have found is that people make decisions based on what option 'appears' to be better most of the time. Under conditions in the natural world this would be the best strategy, but in modern life it has nothing do with the real inherent risks," he adds, citing our individual responses to that yellow light.

People are aware of the actual risks when driving through a light at an intersection, but unless they've already had a brush-with-death or a brush-with-a-traffic-cop, the perceived risk remains low, says Prof. Lotem. This is because in most cases nothing happens to the risk-taker. "You save one minute, but you can lose everything. People don't do the math," he says.

Lotem's study found tha

Contact: George Hunka
American Friends of Tel Aviv University

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Humans' response to risk can be unnecessarily dangerous, finds Tel Aviv University study
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