Previous research has focused on the many benefits of the experience of flow such as motivation and persistence in learning contexts. Flow has also been associated with positive outcomes regarding experience, well-being, mood and performance.
Considering these earlier findings, flow seems to be a perfect and beneficial state of mind. The first to note a possible dark side of flow was the psychologist behind the concept, Csikszentmihalyi, himself:
“… people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (p. 3).
This relationship, however, was only found in inexperienced participants. The researchers conducted three studies in total to examine how and for whom the experience of flow leads to risk taking behaviors.
In the first study, 61 kayakers were told to fill out a brief questionnaire, regarding the experience they were having while kayaking (the experienced risk of capsizing), and their level of kayaking experience. This study found that experienced kayakers were less likely to engage in risk taking behaviors.
This finding confirms the assumption that experienced athletes have more information at their disposal to evaluate risk, which in turn leads to more optimal estimations of danger. In contrast, beginners, who reported experiences of flow, displayed risk underestimation.
In the second study, 79 outdoor rock climbers were interviewed with a wireless headset about the experience they were having (i.e., their perceived risk of falling).
The risk behaviors were assessed by counting omissions of safety hooks while climbing. The results of this study reveal that feelings of self-efficacy make some individuals take more risks when experiencing flow.
The objective of the third study was to identify how the level of experience influenced the flow-self-efficacy-risk relationship.
In this study, 102 indoor rock climbers were interviewed post-climbing about the experience they had while climbing (e.g., how often did you think of the risk of falling?).
It was found that both inexperienced and experienced rock climbers benefited from the experience of flow in terms of self-efficacy.
It was also found that the more experienced climbers showed greater risk awareness. Thus, according to this new study, flow may impair risk awareness, but only in inexperienced people.