Anxious? Fearing Risk May Be An Overlooked Source

June 20, 2017

This new study suggests that anxious people may be more disabled by fear of risk-taking than fearing a negative outcome. I’m generally skeptical of lab experiments, because generalizing the results to “real-life” situations is often off-base. However, this study may shed light on some of the drivers underlying some forms of anxiety.

In essence, the researchers looked at the differences between fear of risk-taking and fear of loss among people diagnosed with anxiety disorder. A controlled experiment found that anxious people had similar levels of loss aversion to healthy people, but showed enhanced risk aversion. “In other words, everyone is loss averse, but anxious people are more reluctant to take risks than non-anxious people,” said the lead author, Caroline Charpentier. That is, the research suggests that it’s aversion to taking risks that drives avoidance behavior observed in anxious people.

I think the research falls short in viewing the findings as a cognitive issue, benefited by new learning. But that ignores the powerful, and different emotional forces that underlie anxiety in different people. Two people can be diagnosed with anxiety disorder, but with very different underlying sources. That’s overlooked by Charpentier, who says, “It suggests that we should focus on encouraging anxious individuals to increase their tolerance of risk rather than dampening down their sensitivity to negative outcomes.”

Well, sure – and that highlights the problem: Underlying, often unconscious emotional issues inhibit dealing with anxiety. You can’t just increase your tolerance of risk by assuming it’s just a a new mental skill to acquire.

The research, from University College London and published in Biological Psychiatry, is described in this report.

Credit: CPD Archive