The hours of work I spend on relatively tedious tasks, such as the manual optimization of image dimensions on this site, are often lightened by listening to free online courses on various topics. This past week, I have been retreading the basics of personal finance in this course by Andrew Hingston. How poetic, then, that I should have stumbled across and begun listening to a course which often speaks of risk management and risk minimization, when I was already in the midst of reading a defense of our risky behaviors: The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance by psychologist Kayt Sukel.
Both individuals are students, to some degree, of behavioral economics—as formulated by, among others, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. But their application and incorporation of such insights into their own worldviews are divergent. Whereas in his course Hingston shifts his perspective toward financial priorities so that one can analytically control one’s emotional experiences, Sukel accepts research on risk-taking as an opportunity to offer a naturalistic—even rational—account of risky decision-making. So now, setting other scholars aside, I would like to evaluate Sukel’s book, first for its method and then for its style.
The Method of The Art of Risk:
Sukel’s general method in each of the chapters of The Art of Risk is to present an individual as a reference point or case study, and then to move into an interlude about contemporary research, before finally concluding by applying the research to the case study. Her aim—and I think she is successful in this—seems to be showcasing how seemingly intuitive and complex decisions are, in fact, made by a highly ordered and well-adapted set of related biological systems. Imbalances, variations, and outside influences on these systems reliably account for the differences between risk-taking and risk-averse individuals.
Even if the connection between the case study and the research topic of each chapter varies from close to tenuous, this methodology provides a platform for one of my favorite aspects of this kind of pop science writing: a tour through interesting relevant research studies from all over the world. The Art of Risk does not skimp on such examples.
Furthermore, it is always remarkable to hear how oft-thought-arbitary human behaviors can be precisely modeled and predicted in a lab—how, for instance the presence or absence of a given variant of the 5-HTTLRP gene (associated with the regulation of serotonin in the brain) can reliably predict, with some prudent caveats, a rough percentage increase or decrease in a person’s risky behavior.
Still, the downside of this kind of pop science writing is also present: because her topic is so broad, many of the minutiae of the individual areas of study (e.g. the anatomy of the brain) are to a certain extent glossed over. Readers familiar with sociology or biology may find sections of the book to be withholding a deeper discussion of the relevant science. Readers unfamiliar with those topics, on the other hand, are likely to appreciate the pace, tone, and content at play.
If you decide to pick up The Art of Risk for yourself, I do have one bit of advice: give the book at least through the third chapter before you decide whether you like its style or not. The book gets off to a bit of a slow start, with repeated sentences and paragraphs here and there—in sentiment and, occasionally, in content—but by the fourth chapter Sukel hits her stride. From there on, she navigates from one topic to another with succinctness and enthusiasm.
The Style of The Art of Risk:
Kayt Sukel’s style is one that is relatively laid back. There are merits and drawbacks to such an invitingly casual approach. While one wonders who the target demographic might be of a joke like, “Ain’t Nothing but a gene thing?” being used as a heading for a section on the correlation between risky behavior and variants of the DRD4 gene, I admit that it elicited a smirk from me. As a previous great in the field of popular science writing, Carl Sagan, can well attest, even the slightest of smirks can make dense scientific prose more palatable.
Kayt Sukel’s The Art of Risk is certainly not what I would describe as dense. Relative to Sagan (in, for instance, his book on the evolution of the brain, The Dragons of Eden—which I finished reading just a couple of months ago), Sukel’s writing is less technical and more personal. So the work remains broadly accessible, even to readers who have never even cursorily studied biology.
This has the additional benefit of a sense of rapport with the author. Where other pop science writers come across as educators, Sukel comes across as a well-researched friend. Kayt Sukel does not shy away from the inclusion, and even the foregrounding, of her biography at times. (It is tempting to group this unabashed intimacy with her project’s allegiance to risk-taking, but given the nature of her previous work, I think embarrassment is admirably absent from Sukel’s personality.)
The Art of Risk‘s conversational tone has another benefit: it matches perfectly with Sukel’s inclusion of herself in the research. The ‘frame narrative,’ such as it is, concerns Sukel’s own quest to justify her intuition that she ought to be taking on the youthful risk-taking behaviors that she has slowly outgrown. This causes her to reflect on the personal meaning of different research topics, to undergo some of the tests and exercises she is reporting, and to relay strands of conversation between herself and her interviewees. For the most part, these all serve to enliven the book without straying from the science.
If there is one notable omission in The Art of Risk, it is philosophy. Sukel concludes her introduction with the following words: “[. . .] I hope I might become a risk-taker again. But as I move forward, I intend to be a more informed one.” But there is a lot of possible irony here: does a risky decision, once properly evaluated and probabilistically considered, lose some of its associated risk? Is there not potentially a basic contradiction between being a risk-taker (on some ordinary definition) and studying at length the behavior-causing aspects of our biology? The work is silent on these considerations, which might significantly alter the book’s sustained affinity for (and defense of) the concept of risk in the abstract.
But thematics and definitions aside, Kayt Sukel’s work is most assuredly worthwhile. If you are an impulsive person, then The Art of Risk will show you your inner workings. If you have never even glanced at the fields of neuroscience, genetics, psychology, or sociology, then there are some good light primers and introductions to relevant areas of these topics as well. All in all, The Art of Risk is a straightforward, casual, lively presentation of research into an area of behavior—namely decision-making—that is relevant to every person’s daily life.