Risk-Taking and the I-Function

Emily Alspector's picture

At first glance, engaging in an activity that puts ones life at risk may seem evolutionarily unadaptive. However, much research and discussion has been initiated with just the opposite idea in mind. Risk-taking tendencies apparently lie deep within our evolutionary framework; our hunger-gatherer ancestors had no choice but to put their lives in danger in pursuit of food, shelter, or protection from danger. As Eric Perlman, a filmmaker specializing in extreme sports, said, “We are designed to experiment or die” (Greenfield, 1999)(1). Moreover, current generations of American descent can ascribe their thrill-seeking desires to a more recently developed national characteristic: if not for our risk-taking, heroic forefathers, the United States would not have been established, much less expanded in order to fulfill our Manifest Destiny, nor would it have become one of the most powerful countries in the world. That being said, Darwinian evolution in conjunction with national pride still does not seem to be a sufficient explanation as to why people put their lives at risk for fun, be it BASE (Building +Antenna tower + Span + Earth) jumping, unprotected sex, day trading, or substance abuse. Researchers believe the biopsychosocial model is at work, incorporating genetic, environmental, and cultural factors, in deciding whether or not to take a risk.

Ernst, Pine, and Harden (2006) define risk-taking behaviors as favoring “the selection of courses of action with uncertain and possibly armful consequences” (299) (2). Similarly, Schneider, Butryn, Furst and Masucci (2007) describe risk as having three separate elements of thought: losses, these losses’ significance, and the uncertainty associated with the losses(3). However, these definitions do not address the reasoning behind choosing this type of lifestyle. Freudian theory suggests such individuals have a death wish and are actually “expressing suicidal tendencies” (Pain & Pain, pS33, 2005) (4). Even if this were the case, the individuals themselves would never know it. Schneider, et al. (2007) believes extreme athletes have learned how to manage their fear, and it is actually this fear that keeps them safe and realistic(3). In addition, research from the mid-1990s on unprotected sex in a population of homosexual men reveals almost a sense of surrender. The men have accepted the almost inevitable possibility of contracting the HIV virus, and have decided to choose quality of life over quantity. (1)

Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University, created a classification system in order to differentiate the various types of impulsive behavior mentioned previously (Greenfeld, 1999) (1). First, all risk-takers are recognized as having Type T personality. This includes the day trader, the heroine addict, Albert Einstein, and Lewis and Clark. However, once we subclassify into Type T intellectual (among the likes of Galileo and Van Gogh), Type T physical (among the race car drivers and stunt doubles), and Type T negative (along with the delinquents and criminals), we can see the difference between choosing temporary danger or chronic self-harm.

The neurobiological explanation for risky behavior is based on the reward pathways located in the limbic system. Blum (as cited in The Brief Addiction Science Information Source), suggests a cascade of neurotransmitter release, with dopamine being the signal discharged at the end of the chain reaction. Although Blum’s model is meant to embody the nervous system of an addict, we can expand this model to encompass the similar feedback reactions occurring in thrill-seeking individuals. In such people, the cascade is abnormal and the number of dopamine receptors becomes decreased so that the individual must somehow release more dopamine to compensate and suppress his cravings. In fact, there have been genetic links to cascade inhibition. Not only do these cascades need more stimulation to be effective, but a continual lowering of tolerance keeps these individuals pushing their limits. (5)

In addition, a motivation-behavior model was designed by Ernst, et al. (2006) in order to explain what is occurring in the adolescent brain in risk-taking behavior, impulsivity, and reward/novelty-seeking. Adolescence was chosen as to be observed because it is during this time that physical, neurological, and psychological changes are occurring. In fact, much of the literature on risky behavior is focused on the adolescent and young adult population. Many researchers have endorsed the effort to reform this generation without actually attempting to understand why they might be behaving this way. The model proposed by Ernst, et al. (2006) attributes such behaviors to a well-developed nucleus accumbens, which is involved in the reward pathway, an underdeveloped amygdala, leading to less harm-avoidant behavior, and an immature prefrontal cortex, causing ineffective self-supervision. (2)

Such efforts explain what is going on inside the body to rationalize these decisions from a physiological standpoint. However, as noted earlier, the biopsychosocial model calls attention to the interaction between society, the environment, and genetics. Perhaps this is where I-function comes into play. In adults, an individual with low dopamine receptor levels must somehow decide if he wants to travel the road of fleeting risk or the dangerous path of chronic self-harm. He must look to his I-function for directions; this is one possible explanation for the process by which one might become T physical, T intellectual, or T negative.

The I-function seems to have a mysterious, somewhat vague role, yet each of us has one and is dependent on it in many ways. The I-function can be what makes the difference between deciding to perform stem-cell research, climb Everest, or do a line of cocaine. It is not just the self, not just consciousness, but it is what distinguishes the mountain climber from the drug addict, or at least it is what is responsible for the processes by which one becomes a mountain climber or a drug addict. While it is clear that a decision can be made without using the I-function, decisions are first directed to the I-function so as to remain consistent with previous choices. Then, Type T individuals with low numbers of dopamine receptors (or in adolescents whose brains are not fully developed) stand out in society and appear reckless and insane, but their I-function has been interacting with their nervous system their whole lives and they know what they are doing is only quenching a thirst that not many others share; they are in a “chronic state of underarousal” (Pain & Pain, S33). (4)

We can further deduce the role of the I-function by pinpointing when it is not in use, as in the case of what Pain and Pain (2005) denote as “flow”. (4) Flow is the “suspension of time and the freedom of complete absorption in activity” (S34). Similar to “the zone,” experienced by many (non-extreme) athletes and performers of all kinds, flow is an escape of reality, and an entrance into the action; you are not doing the action, but the action (be it playing tennis, singing opera, or writing a dissertation) is being done to you. While individuals of the T negative type allow the action to seize and usurp their I-function, Type T physical people seem to be well aware of their limits and keep the attainment of flow at a safe distance from their I-function. Extreme athletes are aware of the risks they take and are very meticulous in planning each voyage. Type T intellectuals, too, are careful to step over only the most necessary of boundaries in order to accomplish their goals. As cited in Schneider, et al. (2007), Zuckerman believes that the risk itself is not the goal; thrill-seekers do not risk for the sake of risk, but instead, type T individuals are more willing to accept the impending dangers involved. (3) This behavior was exhibited previously in the “surrender” of the population of homosexual men having unprotected sex. They have decided to accept the consequences of their risky behaviors. This acceptance is most likely due to their low dopamine levels resulting in a higher thrill threshold. Therefore, Type T intellectual and physical individuals’ I-function is not overwhelmed and overshadowed by attainment of flow, as is often the case of Type T negative, who can often feel lost and become vulnerable to their abnormal neurotransmitter release. This is not to say, however, that Type T physical and intellectual people are not susceptible to becoming addicted (in a loose sense of the term), especially when the pliable cascade structure is at the source. Many extreme sportists admit to the high they get, calling it “magic” (Greenfeld, 1999). (1)

An interesting feature of the Type T population is its prevalence and the possible future implications for the nation. Founded on risk as the United States may be, with the number of T negative and physical ever increasing, perhaps America is on the verge of biting off more than it can chew. As mentioned in Schneider, et al. (2007), ours has become a “culture of risk” (354) (3). The risks are becoming exponentially more dangerous, and whether Type T individuals are willing to take that risk or not seems to be becoming of less and less concern. When does T physical blend into T negative? And why does it seem as if the Type T intellectual population has gone missing? Perhaps it is the lack of media coverage and public interest in venturesome intelligence, but as more T physical turn T negative, perhaps, too, T intellectual are intermingling with its counterparts. If this trend continues, the number of “lost” I-functions would escalate rapidly.

As noted above, the majority of the literature focuses on young adults, particularly men, because of societal views that at an early age boys should be allowed to “play rough” and take more risks than girls (6). Perhaps along with an underdeveloped amgydala and prefrontal cortex, the youthful brain also has a seriously confused I-function. Poor choices are made because under the direction of an underdeveloped I-function, the central pattern generators have not yet established a reliably consistent pattern. Intervention strategies should focus on altering the central pattern generators’ configurations so as to direct output that will compensate for low dopamine levels in a constructive manner: by concentrating on living the T intellectual or T physical rather than the alluring T negative lifestyle.



1 Greenfeld, Karl T. “Life On the Edge”. Time Magazine. September 6, 1999. Accessed April 4, 2008. < http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,991894-5,00.html>

2 Ernst, Monique, Pine, Daniel S., & Hardin, Michael. “Triadic Model of the Neurobiology of Motivated Behavior in Adolescence.” Psychological Medicine. 36 (2006): 299-312.


3 Schneider, Terri A., Butryn, Ted M., Furst, David M., & Masucci Matthew A. “A Qualitative Examination of Risk Among Elite Adventure Racers.” Journal of Sport Behavior. 30.3 (2007): 330-357.


4 Pain, Matt T. G. & Pain, Matthew A. “Essay: Risk Taking in Sport.” The Lancet. 366 (2005): S33-S34.


5 “The Wager: Biology, Addiction, and Gambling.” basisonline.org. 1 April 2008 http://www.typepad.com/t/trackback/2468650/26136048

6 Mulrine, Anna. “Control Those Impulses.” U.S. News and World Report. (September 18, 2005). 1 April 2008




Paul Grobstein's picture

Risk-taking and life

Lots of interesting stuff here. I wonder if one could disentangle a bit more "risk taking," "recklessness," "novelty-seeking", and "death wish." If “We are designed to experiment or die” then maybe risk-taking (to varying degrees in different people) is part of our core organization, I-function or no, and adolescent or otherwise? See Inverting the Relationship Between Randomness and Meaning and Irreducibility without Dualism: Chaos or Indeterminacy.

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