RISK has always had a bit of an image problem. It is associated in the popular mind with gamblers, skydivers and, more recently, the overpaid bankers who crippled the global economy. Yet long-term economic growth would be impossible without people willing to wager all they have by starting a business, expanding an existing one or trying to invent a better mousetrap. Such risk-taking has been disturbingly scarce in America of late: the number of self-employed workers, job-creation at start-ups and the sums invested in businesses have been low.
Though changing appetites for risk are central to booms and busts, economists have found it hard to explain their determinants. Instead, they tend to cite John Maynard Keynes’s catchy but uncrunchy talk of “animal spirits”. Recent advances in behavioural economics, however, are changing that.