Why You’re So Tempted To Do Something Stupid During Quarantine
Micro-risks like giving yourself bangs could be soothing your brain
Since stay-at-home orders have been put into effect, some of my usually-risk-averse friends and online acquaintances have been doing the weirdest things.
They’re cutting themselves ill-conceived bangs or completely shaving their heads. They’re making out-of-character impulse purchases, posting bizarre TikTok videos, embarking on ill-fated forays into experimental cooking, smoking cigarettes like furtive teenagers (even if they don’t really smoke), and going for bike rides wearing face masks but no helmets. I even have one friend who decided, on a whim, to give himself a tattoo with common household items.
As someone who wrote an entire book about how human beings approach risk-taking — The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance — I couldn’t help but wonder what was inspiring all these out-of-character micro-risks. I didn’t think they could be chalked up to simple boredom. It seems like there’s something about the Covid-19 lockdown that’s facilitating a little more risk-taking behavior.
It makes sense that, given all the stress we’re living through right now, and how cautious we have to be in our day-to-day lives, some part of us wants to take risks. I even think that it’s possible these micro-risks are soothing our brains, keeping us from taking major risks that could actually put our lives, and the lives of others, in immediate danger.
Risk in the brain
The brain relies on the mesocortical limbic circuit to help us decide whether a risk is worth taking. This specialized circuit is composed of three distinct brain areas: the basal ganglia, better known as the brain’s reward system; the limbic system, or the brain’s emotional centers; and the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reason, judgment, and executive function.
To put it simply, these three areas act as a sort of computer, collecting and analyzing the key information that can help us make smarter decisions. The basal ganglia considers our needs and desires. The limbic system adds input about our emotions and past experiences. Then the prefrontal cortex processes all that…