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Riders wait for the green signal during peak-hour traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.

fightbegin/iStock Editorial

Yoga studio owner Meg Alexander wouldn’t normally describe herself as a daredevil. At home in Toronto, she says the riskiest thing she gets up to is occasionally jumping on the streetcar without tapping her Presto card, but on holidays in Vietnam in 2014, she thought nothing of buying a vehicle she wasn’t licensed for, then learning to ride it in Ho Chi Minh City’s peak hour traffic.

“We wanted to get from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, so we bought motorcycles off these two random travellers who were selling them by the side of the road. Me and my two friends, we bought two motorbikes between us and we were like, okay, now we just have to learn how to ride them.”

While not all travellers are as ambitious as that, most will relate to the impulse. When we’re overseas, many of us take risks we never would at home: trusting total strangers, eating exotic foods, signing up for unfamiliar activities, binge drinking and worse. For some, the freedom to let loose is even part of why they set off in the first place.

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While these shenanigans often become the stuff of legend (at least in our own minds) the consequences can be serious. Think of the 17 tourists and two guides who died in New Zealand in December when the active volcano they were visiting erupted. Or the hundreds of Canadians who die abroad each year from accidental causes and foul play.

Given the high stakes, it seems worth asking: What is it about being on vacation that affects our judgment?

Part of it, says Rachel Dodds, a professor at Ryerson University’s Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, is that travel is a way for people to reinvent themselves. Getting away from the judging eyes of everyone you know and behaving like a whole new person is a big part of the appeal.

“People will tell the person sitting next to them on a plane their entire life story but they wouldn’t dare to do that in their hometown,” Dodds says. “There’s a sense of being undiscovered: Nobody knows who you are when you’re overseas.”

There’s also what Dodds calls “the brag factor”: the desire to take a risk and live to tell the tale. It’s a feeling that has only increased with the rise of Instagram. Recent years have seen a series of well-publicized fatal accidents (259 by one count) involving people trying to take extreme selfies around the world.

“A lot of people do stupid things for social media, though we should also remember that people were doing stupid things before social media,” Dodds says. “People want to come home from their trip with a great story, something to talk about at dinner parties.”

There are also inherent psychological factors that might help us understand the risks we take on holidays, says Ross Otto, an assistant professor of psychology at McGill University who studies decision making. The first is optimism bias, the human tendency to underestimate the likelihood of a negative event.

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“I might ask you, for example, how likely you are to fall off the Death Road in Bolivia,” Otto says. “If you don’t know the actual number, according to optimism bias, we would expect many people to give a number that’s lower than the actual incidence.”

Mountain bikers ride up the famous Death Road in Bolivia.

filrom/iStockphoto

And if we weren’t bad enough at judging risk already, the very fact that we’re on holiday, having a great time, might make us more susceptible to making dangerous choices.

“A robust pattern, which you see across a lot of laboratory studies and the real world, is that people in positive mood states, under certain circumstances, tend to accept more risky propositions,” Otto explains. “So if you’re just in a better mood from being on vacation, you might be marginally more likely to take a risky option.”

He speculates that status quo bias, our emotional preference for the current state of affairs, might also affect our judgement overseas. After all, when you’re already so far out of your comfort zone and everything from eating the food to catching a cab seems fraught with danger, what’s one more little risk?

“People prefer the default option, whatever it is. So if you’re already in the mood, already involved in adventurous travel, there may be a bias to just continue doing that, to take more risks."

The thing is, if you weren’t willing to take risks you’d never go on holidays at all. Far from being a side effect of travel, some level of risky behaviour is the whole point. That’s what we mean when we speak about “getting out of our comfort zone.”

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But how do you know when something is a risk too far? For a start, always check the Canadian government’s official travel advisories. It’s also best to avoid making decisions while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If you’re tossing up whether you should participate in an activity, Otto recommends collecting as much data as possible, including a realistic look at your own capabilities. It turns out his example of the Death Road wasn’t purely academic.

“When I cycled the Death Road, we went to a legitimate place with fancy bikes, safety gear, brakes. And I’m an experienced biker. So to me it didn’t seem that dangerous on the face of it … but then every once in a while you come around a curve where there’s a crucifix put up for a tourist who went too fast.”

Dodds, too, has got up to hijinks on holidays. She recalls driving to the pyramids for a midnight camel ride with strangers she’d just met at a party in Cairo.

“I think I probably could have been killed,” she says.

“But I tell that story to a lot of people, because it’s kind of amazing. The fact that I was on a camel, touching the pyramids in the middle of the night under a full moon and there was nobody around? It was pretty cool. Today I wouldn’t do all the stupid things I did when I was travelling, but many of them I would."

As for Alexander, learning how to ride a motorcycle in Ho Chi Minh City proved to be too risky for her. She swapped her bike for an easier-to-ride scooter and made it all the way to Hanoi. The only regret she has is for the money she lost on the trade.

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“Those are the moments that make your life exciting and memorable,” she says. “Those are your memories.”

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