Understanding reasons behind risk taking

Sandeep Mishra is an idealist with a realist's background.

The PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology has a keen understanding of what has led to his educational success, and a desire to better society as a result. He'll use his science to do so.

"So much of my education is funded by taxpayers, so I felt a really strong obligation to choose a topic of study that benefits taxpayers and makes society a better place," says Mishra, who is set to defend his PhD thesis in December. "I'm particularly interested in gambling, risk taking and crime, but more specifically, the social and environmental factors that increase or decrease these behaviours."

Studying under the guidance of Dr. Martin Lalumière, Mishra has been working on the well-established concept of inequality and its link to criminal activity. While there is a large body of evidence that has linked inequality with any number of society's ills, there has never been a causal analysis of the relationship – until now.

Sandeep Mishra
Sandeep Mishra is excited about the possibility that his research could play a vital role in developing policy.

"The empirical research has been done and it has been shown repeatedly that inequality is linked to crime, but this is research at an aggregate level and does not address causal mechanisms," says Mishra. "I decided that a productive line of research would be inducing inequality in a lab setting. Laboratory experiments, involving random assignment to experimental conditions, offer the only conclusive way to determine whether a variable has a causal effect or not. After introducing conditions of inequality in this setting, I then asked what happens to their responses to risky behaviour?"

His findings could shape public policy for years to come.

"All of the evidence suggests that systemic inequality and competitive disadvantage facilitate risk taking, of which criminal activity is an extreme form," says Mishra. "I've found that reducing risk taking is possible by reducing inequality. All of this has enormous policy implications."

Mishra's study invited students to participate in a series of experiments. One such experiment saw pairs of students tasked to answer a series of questions that tested their risk-taking attitudes. Prior to the test, one student was given $10 for his effort, the other none, under the guise that funding only allowed for one party to be compensated.

In almost every instance, the student who had suffered a perceived inequality chose risky options at a substantially higher level. Further, when students were tasked again to perform the tests, except on this occasion another $10 in funding was found midway through the exercise, thus evening out the imbalance, risk taking behaviour significantly declined.

"If something as simple as $10 can influence risky behaviour in healthy, well-educated, socially higher class undergrads, then you can imagine how this mechanism is just compounded in the real world," says Mishra. "What is remarkable is that as soon as the students realize that their environment isn't actually inequitous, that overall things are pretty fair, presumably, they see no reason to engage in elevated risk taking."

Mishra says his findings are directly relatable to public policy, and points to the current political climate where government policy in general is built around punitive action to deter criminal behaviour.

"They are not really investing in root social issues that facilitate conditions that produce risk taking and crime," says Mishra. "Even though it is costlier and you don't see direct implications, investing in infrastructure and better education for those who are underserved is a more prudent approach. Helping people help themselves out of inequitous situations is the best thing we can do to lower crime rates."

Mishra, who is off to the University of Guelph to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship, is a Delhi, Ont. native who began his post-secondary career at Hamilton's McMaster University. Excitable and passionate, he credits the U of L and Lalumière for allowing him to grow his research portfolio.

"Martin's one of the most generous human beings you will ever meet," says Mishra. "He consistently puts his graduate students' well-being above his own and he's allowed me to take control and lead my own research program. The facilities I've had to work with go well beyond what most grad students could dream of, and the feedback he gives me is always excellent and very supportive."


· Mishra sees himself as a future policy analyst or university professor.

· He graduated from high school when he was just 15 and studied biochemistry at McMaster for three years before switching to psychology.

· His undergraduate advisor at McMaster recommended Lalumière and the
U of L's Department of Psychology for graduate studies.

· Mishra's other inequality experiment tested examples of competitive disadvantage and used bogus IQ tests as a means to create situations of inequity amongst his experimental participants.

· All the participants in Mishra's study were thoroughly and carefully debriefed about the aims and hypotheses of the study.

This story originally appeared in the Legend. For a look at the full issue of the November Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.