Why do we take more risks on holiday? The psychology of risk taking

December 21, 2019

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Mariella Attard

Holidays generally involve some element of risk. After all, we’re looking for something special, something different from our day-to-day. That often entails dipping a toe into the unknown. But do we approach that risk differently than we would at home? 

An Aussie father tragically killed in a Spanish boating accident and a serious motorcycle accident in Bali that’s left a Newcastle teenager fighting for his life - these incidents and many others remind us that we can find ourselves in situations out of our control, and the outcome isn’t always good. But it doesn’t seem to put us off. 

In fact, by 2030 the number of people taking overseas holidays worldwide is expected to exceed 1.8 billion. We love it. It gives us the chance to experience new things, connect with people, understand cultures.

Mostly it goes off without a hitch, but not always. Some risks have fatal consequences. Road accidents (often caused by driving on the wrong side of the road, not knowing the rules and conventions, and being tired) are the most common reason that travellers are killed, but adventure sports, trekking, mountaineering, and even wildlife attacks contribute to the reasons they don’t make it home. 

Other risks have less tragic results, but can still cause lasting pain. A summer fling, for instance, is a sure way to risk your heart (and may spawn some terrible poetry that inflicts suffering on an even wider circle). But the holiday romance is one of our most beloved tropes. Just think Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck flirting in “Roman Holiday”, or Olivia Newton John and John Travolta in Grease. 

And what about dignity? Sometimes that’s the first thing to go. Attempting Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” at karaoke after a few sake shots with my new best friends could go either way, right?

Holiday karaoke

So why do we do it? What is it about holidays that brings out our adventurous alter-egos?

Are our holiday shenanigans really out of character?

“People who take risks are risk-takers generally because they need more stimulation just to feel anything,” says retired psychologist Cate Wikner.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers have found an association between psychological risk profiles and health behaviours during travel. If you’re someone who takes health and safety risks at home - like smoking or not wearing a seatbelt, for instance - you’re likely to do so while travelling as well. In fact, what you do at home is more predictive of the health and safety risks you’ll take while travelling than anything else about you (your age or your gender, for instance).

But that’s not the only thing that drives people to do risky things once they’ve left familiar shores. At home, for instance, I am the model road crosser. I stop at the curb, look to the right, look to the left, look to the right again. Then if the road is clear of traffic, I walk straight across the road (don’t run). So what possessed me, while on holiday, to hop jauntily onto a motorbike, clinging for dear life to a charming tour guide I’d only just met?

Ms Wikner says there are several reasons why we behave differently on holidays. Here are a few:

1: Outsourcing your judgement

Quad bike ATV on beach holiday

Expert advice is an important part of making decisions about risk.

“People abrogate their judgement to someone who has more expertise in that area. They’ve got perhaps an elevated trust in the guide, for example,” Ms Wikner explains.

She says the problem with that is that there’s a conflict of interest, which can make a higher level of risk more acceptable to the person whose livelihood depends on that activity than it is for an average person.

“So even if they think the risk is elevated, they’re not going to be highly motivated to stop doing the activity,” she said.

2: Making memories

One of the reasons we go on holidays is to have something different to recount - either to ourselves or to our friends.

“Particularly with social media, you want that shot that shows, wow, that’s an amazing place, or that landscape is so different. So there’s an element of bragging rights - that it made the holiday worthwhile,” says Ms Wikner.

She says it’s telling that my out-of-the-ordinary motorbike ride is deeply etched in my memory.

“When we have adrenaline in our system, we’re much more likely to remember things,” she explains. 

“That’s why they run ads at the end of movies on TV, when the movie’s getting really tense and exciting.

“And that’s why the memory of motorbike riding is etched in your memory much more strongly than maybe the name of the restaurant that you went to and things like that.”

3: Lack of limitations 

Cliff jumping on holiday

Weekends are short, and many of us have to keep Monday morning in mind, which puts limits on our behaviours.

“On holiday, you don’t have that constraint,” says Ms Wikner. “So you think, why not do that? When you’re at home you say, well I can’t do that because I’ve got to get up early for work. Or I’ll get sunburnt and I won’t recover for a few days and that’ll mess up my schedule.

“On holiday you’ve got time to recuperate and bounce back. You don’t have to answer to your boss.”

And that can lead to…..

4: A drink, or two, or six too many

Man getting drunk on holiday

If you were assigned to find pictures that screamed “holiday!” you’d probably come up with more than a few involving a fruity cocktail, an ice-cold beer, candlelit wine glasses, or a whisky by the fire.

And holidays can mean a lot more free time, sometimes spent hanging out with strangers. Drinking can seem the most logical pastime. (Besides, you have time for a hangover, remember?)

Alcohol, of course, leads to greater risk taking and can make you vulnerable. That window ledge looks like a fine place to sit, that person is hilarious and so attractive. And sure, no-one will mind if I take a dip in this fountain and shed a few of these pesky clothes, right?

5: Who’s going to know? 

Besides our safety, and our hearts, sometimes it’s our dignity that we risk early and often. “There’s maybe not that sense of I’ll be judged by people know who I am if I did this at the local pub,” says Ms Wikner.

More seriously, that lack of accountability can give some people license to behave badly - in other words, take moral or ethical risks.

“The lowest level of Kohlberg's stages of moral development is ‘will I get caught’,” explains Ms Wikner. “The highest level is ‘I will do the right thing whether someone’s watching me or not’.

“Some people stay in the ‘I’ll do it unless I get caught’.” 

What’s in it for you?

How we calculate risk is, believe it or not, a rational process that involves weighing up the variables and deciding whether it’s worth it for the reward. Of course the answer is highly individual.

Perhaps the question to ask yourself first is what you want out of your holiday. Me? At the end of a long year, I want to lie in the shade with something to read, something delicious, and something cool in my hand. Lucky for me, the risk of anything going wrong there is pretty low. (Although, come to think of it, the wrong book choice could ruin everything. Looks like I’ve got something to panic about after all.)

Mariella Attard

I'm a Sydney-based freelance writer. I'm always looking for the next good story. Unlike other resources, stories aren't finite, and though they may raise the temperature, they're unlikely to melt glaciers.

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