How Risky Is It, Really?

Why our fears don't always match the facts

The Baumgartner Jump: Why Were We All Afraid?

What a great demonstration of the irrationality of risk perception.

Did you watch? Did your heart pound, your palms get sweaty, your muscles tense? Did you join the millions around the world gripped by fear and tension as Felix Baumgartner rose to more than 24 miles in a balloon-lifted capsule, opened the door (Oh My God!) stood out on the bar outside with a camera over his head looking down (Oh My God!)…And jumped! Aaaaiiiggh!

What a thrill! For Felix, sure, but for US too…sitting safely on the ground in our kitchens or living room or offices or wherever, glued to a TV or computer screen, riveted by and connected to one of the most gripping fears humans experience, the fear of heights, as no human has ever experienced it, viscerally feeling the fear even as we sat safely, firmly on terra-thankfully-very-firma, watching. What a fantastic demonstration of the animal wiring of the human brain when it comes to fear.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

When you ask people what scares them the most, fear of heights ranks high on the list. Endangering people by putting them at great heights is a common tool for evoking fear in movies and TV shows like Fear Factor. The toughest challenges in those personal development ‘ropes courses’ are always the ones where you have to climb up a tree or tower (wearing a harness, but that doesn’t matter) and jump off. Fear of heights makes tons of money, from bungee jumping, to that glass-floored walkway out over the Grand Canyon, to the millions that people are willing to pay to go to the top of the tall buildings of the world for A) the view and B) the scariness of being up that high. The CN tower in Toronto will charge you $175 for the Edge Walk thrill of edging out to the edge of the tower (!!!) and, tethered to a rail over your head, hanging your bottom backwards out over the edge of the building! (No extra charge for looking down. It’s unclear if there’s a charge if you lose your lunch. Tip if you’re in Toronto. Even if it’s not raining, take an umbrella if you walk under the CN Tower.)

As common as acrophobia is, then, it’s small wonder that tens, probably hundreds of millions of people just watched Felix Baumgartner to do what would scare the living bejeezuz out of most of us…jumping out of an ascent capsule at 128,000 feet/24.25 miles/39,014meters…literally the edge of space. The event was watched live on You Tube by 8 million people, almost 20 times more than had ever watched anything live on that global village before. I was one of them. Notes during the final moments;

He’s going through final preparations for jumping. My palms are sweaty. Twitter friend: “I am more likely to pee my pants watching Felix jump, than he doing it..”

Mission control says “Item 14. Move seat to the forward position.” My heart is racing. Another Twitter friend: “Group fear huddle. Engage!”

MC: “Okay we’re getting serious now Felix.” ! Sound from the capsule of pressurizing his suit! Are you kidding me!? (Wide shot of balloon from the ground. Looks like it’s going to burst. Aaiigh! Heart pounds harder!)

MC: ”From now on…our Guardian Angel will take care of you…!” The global supply of human stress hormones is at an all time high.

Oh my God the door is open! Another Twitter friend “This is excruciating,” David Dobbs

MC: “Release seat belt.” Holy crap! Breathing noises from Baumgartner’s microphone….breathing fast! Wish there was telemetry on his vital signs. What is going on in his brain!? He’s got to be one stressed animal!

Feet outside over the edge! My palms are dripping wet! Heart pounding.

Standing on the bar outside! His voice is thin, fast. Arms out, salutes. Lets himself fall. Takes off like a rocket!

You hear him breath! Twitter friend “Woah. Hearing him breath is so terrifying!”]

He’s tumbling, falling like a toy! Out of control! More than 700 mph! Oh my God! Twitter friend: “Unreal. Hearts stopped in my house.”

The parachute is open! Felix says “Gorgeous!” Applause in mission control. I am next to tears. Live feed shows his mom crying. I burst into tears.

He touches down. More control room cheers, tears from Mom, and me.

 

Twitter messages.

“Group hug of relief”

Wow that was amazing” (sorry, can’t find this one…)

From a friend watching in Florence: “My friend Baumgartner you are one crazy dude. What a thrilling ride Love it.”

“UnbeLIEVABLE!”

“Snif. Bravo Baumgartner.” Maryn McKenna

“Holy crap that was the most riveting & insane few minutes I've ever seen. I think I must have held my breath the whole time!”

What was all that emotion about? Those twitter comments, by the way, came from bright, educated, science journalists who, like me and the immense global community that was joined together in this common intense experience, felt fear in precisely the same way. The amygdala, an area of the brain down near the brain stem that triggers the ‘Fight or Flight” fear response, knew there was danger in what we were watching, if not to us then to a fellow member of the human tribe, and his experience became ours. The amygdala triggered the release of glucocorticoids and other stress hormones that made our hearts race and our palms get sweaty. It turned down our immune systems, reduced production of sperm and bone cells, and literally increased the urge to void our waste; (Twitter comment:“I may pee my pants just watching!”) These are all part of the autonomic response to any signal of potential danger, and you could literally watch these responses happening as people commented on what they were feeling as they watched.

We weren’t in danger, of course, so it shouldn’t have been scary to us rational beings, right? Nope. That’s not how risk perception works. The way we perceive and respond to risk is a combination of the facts of the situation (We’re on the ground. We’re safe”) and the feelings (We are watching a fellow human jump out of something 24+ miles high!). As is almost always the case with risk perception, the feelings win. Thank you, Felix, for reinforcing the lesson that we are hardly as smart/rational/cognitively in charge powerful as we’d like to think we are. Reason takes a back back seat at times like these.

What a thrill it was to watch. How compellingly real it became for all of us, who are not members of Baumgartner’s family or circle of friends, when the camera showed the faces of Baumgartner’s mother and family, tense at first, raising our tension, then crying with relief, evoking our shared tears. That offers yet another important piece of evidence from this fabulous demonstration of risk perception…confirming that a risk is far more compelling, scarier, when it is personified, than is a risk we experience only as an idea or a bunch of facts and figures (e.g. climate change). How terrifying it was to watch him tumbling out of control while falling at hundreds of miles an hour…reinforcing the finding from risk perception research that any risk evokes more fear the less control we feel we have.

When we catch our breath there will be many more lessons from this exciting human adventure. One of them certainly is how we are all connected, social human animals, by the neural architecture and chemistry…and emotional nature…of risk perception.

Copyright David Ropeik

A fear post script. It turns out Felix had his own fears, that almost scrubbed the mission. He’s claustrophobic, afraid of being confined in tight spaces…like his pressure suit, and his capsule, that he had to be in for hours. During the ascent he reported, with obvious consternation, that his face mask was fogging up. I bet that fired up Felix’s amygdala just a tad, exacerbating his awareness of being confined, and may be why the the conversation between mission control and Felix was taken off the air. It also may be why it was calming for Felix to finally take off his seta belt and open the door, which freaked out the rest of us but GOOD!

David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an Instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

more...

Subscribe to How Risky Is It, Really?

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?