Having Hope For the Future Could Protect Against Risky Behaviours

By Emily Reynolds

At the start of a new year it’s customary to look forward, imagining what we might want to achieve in the months to come. It’s what lies at the heart of New Year’s resolutions: they may be maligned for their persistent failure to stick, but do at least represent a great degree of hope for the future — a hope to become fitter or more productive, or to learn something new. 

In the current circumstances hope is certainly in short supply. But if you can manage to stay hopeful you might be able to avoid risk-taking behaviours like drinking, taking drugs, gambling or overeating, argues a new study in the Journal of Gambling Studies from Shahriar Keshavarz and team at the University of East Anglia.

The study focuses specifically on “relative deprivation” — the belief that your lot in life is somehow worse than other people’s. Previous research has suggested that those who score highly on feelings of relative deprivation are more likely to engage in “maladaptive escape behaviours” including risk-taking. But hope could ameliorate such behaviour, the team argues, protecting people from potential harm.

In the first study, 51 participants started by filling in two measures. One looked at hope, with participants indicating how much they agreed with statements related to goal-directed energy (“I energetically pursue my goals”) and alternate routes to success (“I can think of many ways to get out of a jam”). The second looked at relative deprivation — how deprived or privileged participants felt compared to other people.

Next, the participants took part in a risk-taking task. They saw an animated cannon, which could fire balls that land anywhere between 0 and 100 metres away, and were asked to bet on where they thought the ball would land. When selecting the distance, participants had three options: a high risk option, which let them cover a five metre range (e.g. the ball landing between 20 and 25 metres away), a medium risk option, which offered a ten metre range (e.g. 20 and 30 metres) and a low risk option (e.g. 20 to 40 metres). The higher the risk, the more money participants could win.

Participants who felt relatively deprived showed an inverse relationship between goal-directed energy and risk-taking. That is, among this group risk-taking was lower for those who had a greater sense of “hope” in the form of directing energy towards achieving their goals. (Those who felt relatively privileged showed the opposite pattern, with risk taking increasing among those with greater hope).

In the second study, 50 participants again filled in measures related to hope and relative deprivation, before being shown their position on a (fake) “Comparative Discretionary Income” index, showing how deprived or privileged they were compared to others based on their income. Some participants were shown a score that indicated they were deprived, while others were told they were comparatively privileged. They then completed the risk-taking measure from the first experiment.

The team found that inducing people to feel deprived led them to take more risks — but again, those who reported more feelings of hope regarding their goals took less risks than those with low levels of hope.  This suggests hope for the future may act as a protective factor against risk-taking in those who feel relatively deprived. Relatively privileged participants again showed the opposite pattern, with hope increasing risk taking.

The final study looked at 122 participants who had gambled at least once in the last year. Participants completed the hope and relative deprivation scales, as well as an index measuring how severe their gambling was on a scale from one (no problem) to four (problem gambling). Results from this measure suggested that 27% of participants had no gambling problems, 26% had low levels of problems, 38% had moderate problems and 9% were problem gamblers with possible loss of control.

As in the previous studies, among participants who reported being relatively deprived, those who showed more goal-directed energy were less likely to have problems with gambling. There was no relationship between hope and gambling severity amongst those who felt relatively privileged.

Hope may therefore be a vital tool for those experiencing difficulties in their life, buffering against risky or potentially harmful behaviours like gambling, drinking or drug-taking. The team posits that those who feel relatively deprived engage in risky behaviours in order to allay or sublimate negative feeling; understanding the importance of hope in such a situation may be a good start in developing behavioural interventions.

It can be difficult to feel satisfied with what you’ve got, especially if those around you appear to be thriving financially, socially or romantically. Looking for ways out of your situation, energetically pursuing goals and thinking of new solutions to problems may not solve all of your problems — but it could make the temptations of risk-taking easier to deal with.

Relative Deprivation and Hope: Predictors of Risk Behavior

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest