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Risky business: Are politicians naturally greater risk-takers than the rest of us?

Sinn Fein’s Daithi McKay took an enormous gamble when he allegedly coached loyalist flag protester Jamie Bryson prior to his appearance at Stormont’s Nama inquiry. But are politicians naturally greater risk-takers than the rest of us, asks Belfast-born psychologist Geoffrey Beattie

Published 20/08/2016

Bill Clinton with intern Monica Lewinsky. The White House intern was at the centre of the 42nd president's 1998 impeachment
Bill Clinton with intern Monica Lewinsky. The White House intern was at the centre of the 42nd president's 1998 impeachment
Michael Gove’s betrayal of former friend Boris Johnson

There are some things that are hard to understand. Perhaps none more than the risks that people take in their everyday lives. It is hard for others to comprehend some acts - "Just one for the road", the "accidental" omissions on the tax form, the "forgetting" to pay for the bottle of wine in the supermarket, fare-dodging.

I was on a train last night and listened in to the excruciating details of a man caught red-handed without a ticket. He had no money, he said, and then he tried to pay with his girlfriend's credit card (she wasn't with him). The train guard talked quietly to save his embarrassment, but our section of the carriage was watching and listening to every excruciating word, alerted by the quiet, but determined tone of the guard.

The conversation went on embarrassingly for two full stops. How could the young man not have foreseen this? How could he not have imagined the consequences?

"I'd be mortified," the old lady beside me said. "How could that lad be so silly?"

Politicians sometimes seem to be the worst in this regard, in both their personal and political lives. Bill Clinton in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky, the MP Simon Danczuk 'sexting' a 17-year-old job applicant, Michael Gove knifing Boris Johnson in the back in front of the television cameras in the Tory leadership contest (always going to be risky with the Blond Bombshell), Daithi McKay briefing loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson before giving evidence to Stormont's finance committee.

Very different sorts of risks, of course, some slightly more explicable than others, but all with that same excruciating trapdoor at the end, when the truth finally comes out.

So, why do people do it? And why are politicians particularly prone to it? Let's start at the beginning with what risk is. It's usually defined as "the chance, or possibility, of suffering loss, injury, damage, or failure". It's about estimating the probability that something can go wrong and then dealing emotionally with the consequences.

Many people, of course, wish to avoid "suffering loss, injury, damage, or failure" at all costs and can't understand those who are prepared to take any risks. So, it's clear that there are major personality differences related to risk-taking and that risk-takers may be attracted to particular jobs and professions.

Politics, after all, is a very risky profession - there is always the strong possibility that you will be booted out at the next election. But we can also think about the processes involved in risk-taking to try to understand why and how people take risks.

There are three basic processes. The first is rooted in the rational mind — thinking, especially about whether things could really turn out badly. Some people are very optimistic, often too optimistic, about life and they systematically underestimate the probability of things ever going wrong.

Jamie Bryson
Jamie Bryson

The second is our emotions, and, in this case, fear of possible embarrassment.

The third is the interaction between these two systems. Our emotions and anticipated emotions seem to guide everyday behaviour. They keep us in check.

You can see why variation in these processes could lead us to either taking risks or not taking risks. Those who do take risks tend to be overly optimistic — they think in particular ways, they focus on what is to be gained, rather than what is to be lost, and somehow they have managed to either shrug off the negative emotions that keep us in check, or alternatively they have learned to reinterpret them. Then that feeling in your gut becomes not fear, but excitement.

What is important to remember is that people, generally speaking, are not very good at accurately estimating the probability of things going wrong, or indeed bad things happening to them. They don’t know whether things will be all right on the night or not.

Research shows that we tend to judge an event as likely or frequent if instances of it are easy to imagine or recall, which makes some sense because frequently occurring events are easier to imagine or recall than infrequent events.

But this ability to imagine bad things happening is also affected by factors unrelated to frequency of occurrence. After the film Jaws was released, people thought that shark attacks were very common (they aren’t).

If you ask people to estimate how common various causes of death are, they overestimate those with powerful images attached to them and, therefore, easy to imagine (things like motor accidents, childbirth, fires, murder), rather than those that are much harder to visualise, such as diabetes, asthma and emphysema.

This doesn’t stop them from driving too fast or playing with matches, but they at least know that they are engaged in risky behaviour. With other things we are even more in the dark.

Of course, if you take risks that go wrong, then this can change you. If something really bad happens to you and this produces a strong emotional response, then it may produce a very vivid and long-lasting memory, which is called a “flashbulb memory”.

These memories are the kinds of memories that don’t fade with time, but stay vivid for years on end, and their presence may make you over-estimate the probability of that bad thing happening again. They may make you more cautious, but, again, your emotional response to the failure is critical. Some hate feeling nervous when they’re taking risks, others love the buzz.

My whole life, people have tried to stop me from taking risks. The first attempt that really made a lasting impression on me and succeeded in changing my behaviour, but not necessarily in the way intended, was a campaign about drugs.

I was a teenager at the time, growing up in Belfast. As a teenager, my social life was restricted to the streets around me, endless hours of hanging about “the corner”, which was in reality the front of a chip shop with a warm air vent blowing out rancid air that stank of chip fat on cold winter nights.

It was a dangerous and unpredictable place. I realised even that there was a life somewhere out there different from this, but it was too far away to glimpse, or touch.

The world of the NME, the News of the World, with stories about the sordid goings-on of rock stars, images of jeans tucked into green boots, Biba, fast cars. “Fast cars and girls are easily come by”, or “easy to come by” — I can’t remember which the pop song said, but not here they weren’t.

It was a Friday in my local youth club that he came to talk to us. We were asked to pull our chairs out into neat rows in front of the speaker. My fingers reeked of coke and crisps. This was an attempt to get at young minds before they were fully-formed, before they had been fixed in a pattern, designed to change our behaviour, designed to fit into the evening’s youth club activities, designed to warn us of the menace of drugs between table tennis and quarter-size snooker.

There was an opening introduction, then a slideshow with images of pills and plants, a glossary of terms, some of which I had heard before, many of which I had not, amphetamine, speed, pep pills, black bombers, dexies, black beauties, black and white minstrels, LSD, purple haze, yellow sunshine, blue heaven, sugar cubes, marijuana, dope (“They call it s*** here in Belfast,” my friend Colin said, helpfully. “I’ve never seen it, but I do know that. If you want some, all you have to say is ‘Can I score some s***.’”), grass, cocaine, coke, Californian Cornflakes. S*** was never mentioned, it was all much more exotic than that.

But to this day, I can remember the slides, with shiny red and black pills, white powder as pure as the snow we never saw in our damp streets, exotic plants. From the opening slide, I was captivated. It was as if the drugs were jumping off the slides, almost three-dimensional in their appearance. I don’t think that I blinked once in case I missed something.

Things were being revealed to me, to us all, we were all drug virgins and pop culture virgins. I had a series of agonising shocks of recognition and clarity. “My friend Jack eats sugar cubes” was no longer a song about a fat teenager with a sugar addiction, like fat Albert down the street; “Purple Haze is in my brain” wasn’t a song about pollution and traffic jams and the way that street lights can play odd tricks with your vision when the shipyard was closing and the streets were packed.

I was hooked, hooked on the glamour and the glitz, hooked on the terms, with their implicit connotations of something different, black beauties, yellow sunshine, Californian Cornflakes, hooked on finding the way out from a world where the swings never moved on a Sunday.

And, when the slides showed close-ups of Black Bombers, I realised that my rusted bathroom cabinet with the shaky mottled glass door, pinned to the wall in our kitchen, was full of drugs, full of black bombers, used by my mother as slimming aids.

That night, my friends and I took drugs for the first time and gabbled away outside the chip shop for hours, hardly noticing the smell of chip fat. It probably wasn’t that much fun, but we all felt different, separate from everyone else, empowered in a curious sort of way.

“We’re on the drugs,” we said to anyone who would listen. And it felt great, dangerous and exciting. It was something that set me apart from the crowd, even though I only took a maximum of one tablet at a time, no more or no less than my mother herself, and, therefore, presumably no riskier.

But, of course, it was the context of the taking that gave these small pills their emotional power. For me they were laden with positive emotional connotations, for my mother they were laden with different connotations, connotations of “putting on the weight” and “can’t get the weight off”, “piling on the pounds, no matter what diet I’m on”, connotations of powerlessness and desperation and necessary medical intervention.

When it comes to taking risks, our emotions are often critical. If you want to understand why some people do take ridiculous risks, you need to analyse their thinking, faulty as it is, their emotions and the connections between the two.

Sometimes, people get a buzz out of it. They’ve taken risks before and nothing bad happened, or even worse, they were praised for it. No flashbulb memories, no embarrassment, no fear, just that buzz.

But there’s always, eventually, a downside. I should have realised that Black Bombers stop you from sleeping, and I became something of an insomniac for a period of time as a schoolboy. I’ve always got dark rings under my eyes in my school photos during a particular phase of my schooling.

And that is, of course, why we sometimes have to persuade our rational mind take over and make very different decisions for us.

Perhaps more than most, politicians need to be reminded of this.

Geoffrey Beattie is Professor of psychology at Edge Hill University in Lancashire. His memoir, Protestant Boy, is published by Granta

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