London, August 7 : Tel Aviv University researchers say people adopt risk-taking behaviours similar to those of animals like rats and bees, and that such behaviours might not prepare them for the modern dangers they face on a daily basis. Prof. Arnon Lotem, a behavioural ecologist from the university's Department of Zoology, believes that such behaviours had their advantages when humans were living as cave-dwellers.
He says that this risk-taking behaviour poses new and potentially dangerous challenges in the modern technology-driven world.
"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," Nature magazine quoted Prof. Lotem as saying.
"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 said, while citing the example of a driver who has to decide whether to speed through an intersection or to slow down when traffic light ahead of you is turning yellow.
According to him, people are aware of the actual risks when driving through a light at an intersection, but the perceived risk remains low unless they have already had a brush-with-death or a brush-with-a-traffic-cop.
Prof. Lotem says that it so happens 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 said.
His study has revealed that when people are presented with simple decision-making stimuli, they do not seem to be analysing the complete situation based on logical rationales or statistics.
Instead, they appear to be making decisions based on simple strategies for coping in nature, based mainly on personal experience.
Prof. Lotem says that during many years of evolution, when living as cave dwellers, people made decisions like other animals, and that tactic worked fine for survival.
However, he added, that tactic did not evolve to survive the modern world.
"We've evolved to be afraid of snakes, but not traffic lights," he said.
Lotem's research might be useful for economists, politicians and psychologists, who need to know when people will take risks.
"(In the business world) If you give feedback and rewards to employees in a clear way, they might be more willing to take risks on your behalf," he said, adding that this approach might help governments to cultivate the entrepreneurial activities of their citizens.
The researcher, however, concedes that it is difficult to assess whether children exhibit similar risk-taking strategies as adults, because children tend to imitate what adults around them are doing.