What influences children’s approaches to risk?
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What influences children’s approaches to risk?

by Freya Lucas

October 06, 2022

Children from different socioeconomic backgrounds make different decisions when placed in the same risky situation a new study from Boston University has shown.


While psychologists have theorised that parents’ wealth and social status may influence their children’s’ risk preferences, this study provides the first experimental evidence to support that assumption, Associate Professor Peter Blake said. 


The research provides evidence that risky decisions in childhood do not always reflect poor judgment or a lack of self-control, he continued. 


Children may be rationally choosing risk when it makes sense in their environment and avoiding risk when it does not. 


The authors hope that parents, teachers, and others who see a child making risky choices will pause and consider that such decisions might make sense given the child’s circumstances.


The premise behind Associate Professor Blake’s research, known as developmental risk sensitivity theory, is drawn from observations of how animals behave in foraging situations. 


The theory proposes that developing organisms learn to use different risk strategies based on the availability of resources and the extent of their needs. A well-fed fox, for example, is unlikely to risk entering dangerous territory for a large meal when a small, certain amount of food is readily available. A hungry fox, however, is more likely to take chances for a big dinner.


To test human applications of this theory, Blake and his coauthor, Teresa Harvey built an experiment to see if children’s risk preferences would vary by their socioeconomic status and by the size of the offered rewards.


Dozens of children between the ages of 4 and 10 years participated in the study, which was conducted at several research sites in Greater Boston, including the Museum of Science. Each child was given the choice to accept a set number of stickers or to spin a wheel for a 50/50 chance of getting even more stickers—or nothing at all.


After some easy practice rounds that ensured participants understood the task, the children were given tougher choices, including a large-reward option (keep four stickers, or spin for a chance of getting eight stickers or none) and a small-reward option (keep two stickers, or spin for a chance of getting four stickers or none). While the children participated in the experiment, their parents filled out demographic forms that included questions about the parents’ education levels and income.


On analysing the data, the researchers found that children from families with lower socioeconomic status were more likely to take a risk and spin the wheel in the large-reward trial than were children from higher status families. Socioeconomic status made no significant difference in the small-reward trial.


“The kids with lower socioeconomic status, they followed the pattern predicted by the theory,” Associate Professor Blake said. “They acted like the hungry fox. They were more likely to take the risk to get the larger reward, and when it came to a lower value reward, they chose the certain option so that they would get something.”


As a whole, boys were more likely to take risks than girls, but gender differences didn’t affect the socioeconomic patterns the researchers were interested in. The study showed no age-based differences in risk preference.


The findings were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B and may be accessed here

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