03 August 2009

Risk Psychology

Who are risk takers?

The terminology itself might be deficient. There are psychologically distinct types of risk takers.

One group might be described a gamblers making isolated bets who have good gut instincts (tactical risk takers?):

[B]eing a successful trader requires incredible fast, raw intelligence to make snap decisions about risk - but also a short attention span. . . . my students going to Wall Street in the last few years - I don't now think they were risk takers. Not one of them has ever opted for a corporate track - too risky, in fact, too many years invested for a middle tier payoff and a constricting career track. Wall Street, from the standpoint of the individual involved, is safer - it's where your friends are, for one thing, and the payoffs are greater and shorter term. And that's so even if you are betting huge amounts of money - it's other people's money - and if the payment structure pays you upfront, then no problem.

Few of them, however, have an ability to think strategically like a CEO instead of a COO, or like an entraprenurial actor as opposed to an employee of an established enterprise:

the ability to formulate and pursue a long term strategy about an industry and a company and a market, rather than simply reacting with the next trade. These are really different skills in business, and everything else, and I wonder if the nature of incentives in the overall human capital markets are not favoring trader skills over institution builder skills ... many of the finance people I know don't understand deep-down what I even mean by institution building skills and don't value it, except insofar as they are able to ... trade it. Instantly.

The risk taking associated with military officers is also discussed:

The military guys were frequently people who would describe themselves as risk-takers, trained as officers to control and channel the impulse, to the point that many of them would not seem, as personalities, as "risk takers" - quite the contrary: but as one of them said, when you have to make command decisions about lives and kinetic energy, what seems to be a cautious personality is actually something really different, risk by definition. . . .

[Ed. with this response:]

My experience with military officers is that they are not risk takers (by personality)-rather, they are extremely 'corporate' and methodical. In essence, they are part of a big, dangerous machine, and their job is to make that machine run well. Effectively, they are engineers in a dangerous business.

The follow up to that is; What does 'risk' mean? If it means 'impulsive,' then my opinion stands. Military officers really are not risk takers (with a few exceptions: the Pattons of the world). If it means 'willing to do work that is more dangerous than most,' even if that work itself is, in many ways, mundane (i.e. building roads, filing paperwork, making powerpoint slides, managing a hospital or feeding facility etc etc-the overwhelming majority of military officers are not directly involved in, or even involved in planning for, shooting), then, of course, military officers are 'risk takers' -they build roads and run hospitals in situations where they might be shot or blown up.

A side note in this discussion suggests that game theory is deficient in failing to make enough of a distinction between strategic and tactical risk taking (I'm not sure this is true myself; lots of game theory is about how experience produces strategies).

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