Truth or Dare: Inside the DNA of a Daredevil

Kids play the game of “Truth or Dare” but for some, the allure of risk, and its coinciding adrenaline rush, follow us into adulthood. We all have at least one daredevil in our network; it may even be you. They find the idea of skiing downhill, outside of trail bounds exhilarating. Risks ranging from promiscuous sexual activity and skydiving to questionable business decisions, or even taking on a startup venture, are aren’t given a second thought.

So, why are some people like this, with an ample appetite for risk, while others tend to play it safe, to the tune of routine, rules and safety? It’s likely not “just because” but rather because daredevils were designed to gravitate toward risk. Recent genetic studies support this theory, offering fascinating clues as to why some of us are natural daredevils.

DNA of a Daredevil

Daredevils gravitate toward risk, and this behavior may be supported in their genes. Early on, researchers could see that twins shared risk-taking behavior, but they still had to located the specific genes that influence risk. Scientists have since located a gene variant, linked to increased risk-taking. People with increased appetites for risk can channel their energy into healthy risks, like sports, rather than risky activities like gambling.

Like many genetic studies, early studies sought answers by evaluating the behavior and DNA of twins. In 2006, a study was published that found that twins shared risk-taking behavior—too much to just simply chalk things up to their environment. However, locating the specific DNA within their genes that drove their risk-taking behavior was an entirely separate challenge.

Other early studies focused on the brain’s response to dopamine receptors. However, these studies were narrowly focused on deviant risk-taking behaviors, like addiction. Widening the scope of studies to include other risk-taking behaviors, such as skiing, resulted in some interesting observations. Within a minute section of a gene known simply as “DRD4”, one scientist noticed a consistent variant. People with this variant within DRD4 were more likely to score high on tests designed to measure aptitude for risk-taking.
What these studies demonstrate is that some of us have a natural need for risk in our lives, “an innate, inherited need to turn to risky activities to reach their optimal level of arousal,” according to Dr. Thomason, the scientist who led the studied on the DRD4 gene variants.

Some speculate that those with this particular variant need healthy outlets for their risk-taking behavior, otherwise there’s the chance they could turn to less desirable forms of risk, like drugs or gambling. Of course, this is pure speculation. But if you find yourself looking for a rush, or if you catch your kids trying to jump off the side of the house into the pool, well, perhaps it’s time for a martial arts class or ski trip, versus a family outing to a painting studio.