Sex without condoms, doing cocaine, and making bad bets: What’s up with risky behavior?

I have a good friend who I really care about, but she often engages in risky behavior. She tells me not to make a big deal about her choices, but I worry. Mostly, I don't understand why she does all the risky things she does. Tell me... why do some people take so many crazy risks?

-Anonymous in Washington

Don’t ask me about all the stupid things I did in college.

Ok, I’ll tell you….

Ok, wait…

No, I won’t. Just trust me. I was dumb. A lot of us have been dumb. Face it, we’ve done dumb shit. And I won’t ask you about yours if you let me drop telling you about mine.

But every now and then, I’ll look back and wonder, what the hell was I thinking?!?

Rationality is a luxury.

Sitting here in a calm, collected state, it’s easy to be rational. I can look back at crazy decisions I’ve made in the past, while sitting here typing with my cat by my side, and easily weigh the pros and cons of my prior choices - and easily conclude they were pretty crappy.

I don’t have a hard time judging the choices that other people have made. You probably don’t have a hard time with it either. I think one of our favorite past times as Americans is to judge the choices celebrities make. Like why Britney shaved her head. Or why Deshaun had so many weird massages. Or why Bill couldn’t keep it in his pants. Celebrities seem to have it so much better than us. It feels good to know they can be stupid too.

We can easily cast judgment while we’re in a rational state.

But most decisions aren’t made in a rational state.

One type of bad decision we like to get judgmental about is the high-risk decision. We’ve all made at least one. Ok, maybe we haven’t had multiple sexual partners without protection, or taken some mystery pill that a stranger gave us at a nightclub or gambled our life savings away in Vegas. Or maybe we have. Either way, we’ve all taken a chance when we shouldn’t have. Maybe it worked out. Maybe it didn’t. Whatever the outcome, it was a bad decision because it was too risky.

So why did we do it? Let’s start with one possible answer, and it has to do with how much you value what you get in the future compared to what you get today.

Would you want $10 today or $15 tomorrow?

According to research, many of us value what we can get in the short term over what we can get in the longer term. For example, when asked to choose between having $10 today versus having $15 tomorrow, a lot of people would take the $10 now. This tendency to “have it now” depends on the amounts you’d get: if the choices were between $10 today or $100 tomorrow, you’d likely go for the $100. But the point is that, to some extent, some people tend to undervalue what they have to wait for – whether it’s money, pleasure, or something else. Behavioral economists call this delay discounting.

Is delay discounting the same as emotional intelligence? They might be related. Emotional intelligence has to do with how well you can perceive, understand, and control your feelings. Can you manage your urges? Handle your sadness? Deal with your anger? That sort of thing.

Delay discounting isn’t just about emotions. It’s about how, when people weigh the pros and cons of doing something, the calibration of their scales are a bit off. They’re told they’ll get $5 more if they wait one more day, but it’s as though what they hear is $0, or less than $0. Because waiting for something makes that future thing less valuable to them, even when it’s actually, in reality, more valuable – and even better.

We don’t delay discount with just money. Any sort of future reward can be discounted. For example, you can put off sexual gratification until you have a condom, or you can (forgive the pun) just say “screw it” and take a chance right now without one. You can invest in a retirement fund that pays off over 20 years or you can try to win big next month in bitcoin. You can eat fruit for dessert and feel proud tomorrow for sticking with your diet, or you can enjoy a huge piece of cake today. Whatever it is, the question is: do you care too much about what you get now, and not enough about what you get later? If so, you could be making crappy choices.

Some of us have it worse than others.

We don’t all discount future rewards for the same types of things. You could eat ice cream for your 10pm snack, or you could pass and eat nothing. Ok, that’s not great, but it’s not the same as being sexually inappropriate with women you work with.

Some types of behaviors are more strongly associated with delay discounting than others. Gamblers have it bad, as do people with drug and alcohol addictions. Smokers struggle with it too, as do people with OCD. And people who engage in risky sexual behavior seem to be plagued by the inability to appropriately weigh short- and long-term rewards.

I can put off having a drink. It’s a lot harder for me to say no to pie. But I can definitely – forever and to the end of time – put off sexual gratification if it means not hurting someone else. Explaining why one person can’t say no to cocaine while another can’t say no to cake isn’t in my area of expertise. But I can say this: whatever the preference, people who engage in delay discounting aren’t necessarily stupid. Some make really good decisions in other areas of their lives.

Take men who’ve recently been called out for sexual assault. Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Deshaun Watson aren’t idiots. They can weigh the pros and cons of their decisions. They’ve actually each made some excellent decisions in their lives or we wouldn’t know who they were. They knew they could get in trouble for what they did or they wouldn’t have tried so hard to cover it up. They just really crave certain, specific things, for whatever reason. The question is, given that they want what they want, and given that they should know better than to go after it, why do they take such risks and do it anyway?

Why do we undervalue future rewards?

One cause for risky behavior due to delay discounting can be what we put in our bellies or up our noses. Research has shown that heavy drinkers might discount future rewards to a higher degree than light or non-drinkers. High-fat, high-sugar diets also might make delay discounting more likely. And of course, there’s drugs. One study showed that cocaine use is associated with impulsive behavior and delay discounting.

But delay discounting might also have psychological causes. For example, depression and other psychiatric disorders may cause people to under-value future rewards. Also, research done on rats has shown a relationship between frontal traumatic brain injury and delay discounting. Makes me wonder if this is why some football players find themselves in unsavory situations.

I’m no stranger to depression, and I suspect some of you aren’t either. It robs you of hope. It makes it hard to see into the future or to expect anything good to happen over the long run. So of course decisions that bring immediate rewards seem more appealing. Right now is all you feel you have.

Choose your friends wisely.

What goes on in our minds and bodies is important, but we can’t ignore the social aspects of risky behavior either. Our social ties play a role in our choices, more so than we know, and sometimes other people’s behavior can rub off on us without us even knowing. It’s why I’ll yawn if you yawn, why couples who’ve been together a long time start to look and dress alike, and why you might gain weight if your friends gain weight. It might just be possible that the tendency to engage in risky behavior could be something you pick up from people around you too.

More research needs to be done on how close friend impact impulsive behavior, but findings so far are interesting. One study has found that interacting with close friends on social media can give you a temporary self-esteem boost which lowers your self-control. In fact, greater social media engagement with people you know well just might lead to a higher body mass index and higher levels of credit card debt.

I get this. When friends you care about like your posts, comment, and share posts you like and comment, you feel good. It’s a rush. I’ve felt it and you probably have too. Getting a lot of likes can feel like you’re getting a fix. Checking back to see your notifications becomes addictive. Social media companies work to make sure this happens. The rush is short-lived and often followed by negative emotions, but in that short-lived moment, you can eat and you can buy. Even when it’s not best for you to eat and buy.

Our social connections do more than rub off on us. They also keep us in line. When we violate social norms (patterns of behavior that society has deemed appropriate), our social groups can let us know and keep us in check. Sociologists call this informal sanctioning. If you break the rules of the group (or of society), you might be shunned, gossiped about, directly called out, or worse. If the people around you force you to pay a price for a series of risky decisions, you may be less likely to make similar types of decisions in the future. That is, if you keep those friends. If they’re what’s standing between you and that drink, or betting on that game, or whatever bad decision you’re about to make, they’re probably good friends to have.

Ever change your friendship group so you could be around people who let you do bad things? Yeah, me too. Ever regret it? Yeah… me too.

Is there hope?

Is risky behavior hard to change? Maybe. But it’s not impossible.

If delay discounting is your problem, there are self-control strategies that can help. You can make better friends. You can increase the costs of engaging in the undesirable risky behavior, making it harder or even impossible to actually go through with it. Rehab is good for this. You can replace risky behavior with some other behavior for long enough that the new behavior becomes your new habit.

I knew a guy once who quit his cocaine habit by forcing himself to go for a run every time he wanted to do a line. Eventually he was running 10 miles a day in his combat boots. His knees suffered for it, but he kicked the habit.

You can also create circumstances where the behavior you’d get rewarded for right away couldn’t happen right away, forcing you to wait and cool off before you dove in. For example, one way I’ve been coping with Covid is by treating myself to an abundance of sweet treats every night, treats my partner so kindly drove to the store to get for me. One night he told me, after hearing me complain about my weight gain, “If you want to get candy, you’re going to have to walk to the store and get it yourself.” The store is two miles away. No thanks. I’ll pass. And yes, I’ve dropped some pounds.

These are just some suggestions, and there are more. Resources are out there to help. If risky behavior is harming your life, it’s a good start to explore whether you having trouble putting off immediate gratification – and be sure to explore it when you’re in an un-tempted state of mind, when you’re not being tempted. It’s in those cooler moments when you don’t feel an urge or an impulse that you can evaluate, plan, and put in place barriers to your risky behavior.

Deep inside, you know it’s not worth it, whatever it is. You can make smaller choices that set you up for better big decisions. Your next decision might just be what some of those smaller choices should be.