By Paul Roberts, published on November 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
In the land of seatbelts and safety helmets, the leisure pursuit of danger is a growth industry. Some experts say that courting uncertainty is the only way to protect the inner force America was founded on. Or to define the self.
RISKY BUSINESS HAS NEVER BEEN MORE POPULAR. MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IS AMONG AMERICA'S FASTEST GROWING SPORTS. Extreme skiing--in which skiers descend cliff-like runs by dropping from ledge to snow-covered ledge--is drawing wider interest. Sports like paragliding and cliff-parachuting are marching into the recreational mainstream while the adventurer-travel business, which often mixes activities like climbing or river rafting with wildlife safaris, has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry. "Forget the beach," declared Newsweek last year. "We're hot for mountain biking, river running, ice climbing, and bungee jumping.
Thirty-six-year-old Derek Hersey knew a thing or two about life on the edge. Where most rock climbers used ropes and other safety gear, the wiry, wise-cracking Brit usually climbed "free solo"--alone, using nothing but climbing shoes, finger chalk, and his wits. As one climbing buddy put it, Hersey went "for the adrenaline and risk," and on May 28, 1993, he got a dose of both. High on the face of Yosemite's Sentinel Rock, Hersey met with rain and, apparently, slick rock. Friends who found the battered body reckon he fell several hundred feet. In the not-too-distant past, students of human behavior might have explained Hersey's fall as death-wish fulfillment. Under conventional personality theories, normal individuals do everything possible to avoid tension and risk.
In fact, as researchers are discovering, the psychology of risk involves far more than a simple "death wish." Studies now indicate that the inclination to take high risks may be hard-wired into the brain, intimately linked to arousal and pleasure mechanisms, and may offer such a thrill that it functions like an addiction. The tendency probably affects one in five people, mostly young males, and declines with age. It may ensure our survival, even spur our evolution as individuals and as a species. Risk taking probably bestowed a crucial evolutionary advantage, inciting the fighting and foraging of the hunter-gatherer.
In mapping out the mechanisms of risk, psychologists hope to do more than explain why people climb mountains. Risk-taking, which one researcher defines as "engaging in any activity with an uncertain outcome," arises in nearly all walks of life. Asking someone on a date, accepting a challenging work assignment, raising a sensitive issue with a spouse or a friend, confronting an abusive boss--all involve uncertain outcomes, and present some level of risk. Understanding the psychology of risk, understanding why some individuals will take chances and others won't, could have important consequences in everything from career counseling to programs for juvenile delinquents.
Researchers don't yet know precisely how a risk taking impulse arises from within or what role is played by environmental factors, from upbringing to the culture at large. And, while some level of risk taking is dearly necessary for survival (try crossing a busy street without it), scientists are divided as to whether, in a modern society, a "high-risk gene" is still advantageous. Some scientists, like Frank Farley, Ph.D., a University of Wisconsin psychologist and past president of the American Psychological Association, see a willingness to take big risks as essential for success. The same inner force that pushed Derek Hersey, Farley argues, may also explain why some dare to run for office, launch a corporate raid, or lead a civil-rights demonstration.
Yet research has also revealed the darker side of risk taking. High-risk takers are easily bored and may suffer low job satisfaction. Their craving for stimulation can make them more likely to abuse drugs, gamble, commit crimes, and be promiscuous. As psychologist Salvadore Maddi, Ph.D., of the University of California-Davis warns, high-risk takers may "have a hard time deriving meaning and purpose from everyday life."
Indeed, this peculiar form of dissatisfaction could help explain the explosion of high-risk sports in America and other postindustrial Western nations. In unstable cultures, such as those at war or suffering poverty, people rarely seek out additional thrills. But in a rich and safety-obsessed country like America, land of guardrails, seat belts, and personal-injury lawsuits, everyday life may have become too safe, predictable, and boring for those programmed for risk-taking.
In an unsettling paradox, our culture's emphasis on security and certainty--two defining elements of a "civilized" society--may not only be fostering the current risk taking wave, but could spawn riskier activities in the future. "The safer we try to make life," cautions psychologist Michael Aptor, Ph.D, a visiting professor at Yale and author of The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement, "the more people may take on risks."
In Icicle Canyon, a towering rocky corridor in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, this strange interplay between safety and risk is a common sight. When weather permits, the canyon's formidable walls swarm with fit-looking men and women, using improbably small ledges and cracks to hoist themselves upward. For novices, risk can be kept to a minimum. Beginners' climbs are "top-roped" by a line running from the climber to a fixed cliff-top anchor and back down to a partner on the ground.
Even so, the novice can quickly experience a very realistic fear--what veterans call "getting gripped." Halfway up one short cliff, a first-timer in a tee shirt and shorts stalls out beneath a rock overhang. Unable to find a foothold, the climber peels off the cliff like wet wallpaper and dangles limply from the rope. His partner lowers him back to safety, where he stands white-faced, like someone emerging from an auto accident. Five minutes later, he is back on the cliff.
It's easy to see why high-risk sports receive so much academic attention. Climbers, for example, score higher on risk-preference tests than nearly all other groups. They show a strong need for intense stimulation and seek it in environments--sheer cliffs or frozen waterfalls--that most humans seem genetically programmed to avoid.
Climbers' own explanations for why they climb illustrate the difficulty of separating genetic, environmental, and cognitive components of this or any other behavioral trait. Many say they climb for decidedly conscious reasons: to test limits, to build or maintain self-esteem, to gain self-knowledge. Some regard it as a form of meditation. "Climbing demands absolute concentration," says Barbara, a lithe, 30-ish climber from Washington State. "It's the only time I ever feel in the moment."
Yet even the most contemplative climbers concede that their minds and bodies do operate on a unique wavelength. As Forrest Kennedy, a 32-year-old climber from Georgia, bluntly puts it, "What we do for kicks, most people wouldn't do if you held a gun to their heads."
Many climbers recognize that their commitment to the sport borders on addiction, one that persists after brushes with injury and death. Seattle attorney Jim Wickwire, for example, is probably best known for being on the first American team to summit Pakistan's 28,250-foot K-2, second highest peak in the world and arguably the most challenging. (The movie K-2 was based on his story.) Yet this handsome, soft-spoken father of five is almost as wellknown for his obstinacy. On K-2, Wickwire lost several toes to frostbite and half a lung to altitude sickness. A year before, in 1977, he'd seen two climbing partners fall 4,000 feet. In 1981, on Alaska's Mount McKinley, he watched helplessly as another partner froze to death after becoming wedged in an ice crevasse.
Wickwire vowed then never to climb again. But in 1982, he attempted 29,028-foot Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak--and there saw yet another partner plunge 6,000 feet to her death. In 1993, as Wickwire, then 53, prepared for a second Everest attempt, he told a climbing magazine that he'd "stopped questioning why" he still climbed. Today, he seems just as uncertain. "The people who engage in this," Wickwire says, "are probably driven to it in a psychological fashion that they may not even understand themselves."
Until recently, researchers were equally baffled. Psychoanalytic theory and learning theory relied heavily on the notion of stimulus reduction, which saw all human motivation geared toward eliminating tension. Behaviors that created tension, such as risk taking, were deemed dys-functional, masking anxieties or feelings of inadequacy.
A CRAVING FOR AROUSAL
Yet as far back as the 1950s, research was hinting at alternative explanations. British psychologist Hans J. Eysenck developed a scale to measure the personality trait of extroversion, now one of the most consistent predictors of risk taking. Other studies revealed that, contrary to Freud, the brain not only craved arousal, but somehow regulated that arousal at an optimal level. Over the next three decades, researchers extended these early findings into a host of theories about risk taking.
Some scientists, like UC-Davis's Maddi and Wisconsin's Farley, concentrate on risk taking primarily as a cognitive or behavioral phenomenon. Maddi sees risk taking as an element of a larger personality dimension he calls "hardiness," which measures individuals' sense of control over their environment and their willingness to seek out challenges. Farley regards risk-taking more as a whole personality type. Where other researchers speak of Type A and B personalities, Farley adds Type T, for thrill seeking. He breaks Type-T behavior into four categories: T-mental and T-physical, to distinguish between intellectual and physical risk taking; and T-negative and T-positive, to distinguish between productive and destructive risk taking.
A second line of research focuses on risks biological roots. A pioneer in these studies is psychologist Marvin Zuckerman at the University of Delaware. He produced a detailed profile of the high-sensation seeking (HSS) personality. HSS individuals, or "highs," as Zuckerman calls them, are typically impulsive, uninhibited, social, and tend toward liberal political views. They like high-stimulus activities, such as loud rock music or pornographic or horror movies, yet are rarely satisfied by vicarious thrills. Some level of actual risk--whether physical, social, or legal-seems necessary. Highs tend to be heavy bettors. They may try many kinds of drugs and favor sports like skiing or mountain climbing to running or gymnastics. Highs also show a clear aversion to low-sensation situations, otherwise known as boredom.
High-sensation seeking plays a huge role in relationships. Highs favor friends with interesting or offbeat life-styles, and avoid boring people. They're also far more sexually permissive, particularly in the number of sex partners, than lows. Highs favor mates with similar proclivities for stimulation, while lows generally pair off with other lows. And woe, apparently, to those who break this rule. "The combination of a high- and a low-sensation seeker," says Zuckerman, "seems to put the marriage relationship at risk."
Indeed, one benefit of such research is that it can be applied to many areas of everyday life. Those seeking mates, the University of Wisconsin's Farley says, should focus on those who share their level of risk taking, particularly in terms of sexual habits. Likewise, thrill seekers should also look for the right level of on-the-job excitement. "If you're a Big T type working on a microchip assembly line, you're going to be miserable," Farley predicts. "But if you're Big T on a big daily newspaper or a police force, where you never know what you'll be doing next, you're probably going to thrive."
Many climbers fit the HSS profile. Many report difficulty keeping full-time jobs, either because the work bores them, or because it interferes with their climbing schedule. Long-term relationships can be problematic, especially where climbers marry nonclimbers, or where one partner begins losing interest in the sport. Non-climbing partners often complain that their spouses spend too much time away from home, or refuse to commit to projects (children, for example) that might interfere with climbing. Relationships are also strained by the ever-present threat of injury or death. As one Midwestern climber puts it, "the possibility that I might miss dinner, forever, doesn't make things any smoother."
Further, while many climbers are models of clean living, the sport has its share of hard partiers. Some even boast of making first ascents while high on marijuana or hallucinogens like LSD. Climbers say such drugs enhance or intensify the climbing experience. But studies suggest that the drugs may also mimic the process that pushes climbers in the first place.
WIRED FOR THRILLS
Researchers have long known of physiological differences between high- and low-sensation seekers. According to Zuckerman, the cortical system of a high can handle higher levels of stimulation without overloading and switching to the fight-or-flight response. Psychologist Randy Larsen, Ph.D., at the University of Michigan, has even shown that high-sensation seekers not only tolerate high stimulus but crave it as well.
Larsen calls high-sensation seekers "reducers": Their brains automatically dampen the level of incoming stimuli, leaving them with a kind of excitement deficit. (Low-sensation seekers, by contrast, tend to "augment" stimuli, and thus desire less excitement.) Why are some brains wired for excitement? Since 1974, researchers have known that the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) plays a central role in regulating arousal, inhibition, and pleasure. They also found that low levels of MAO correlate with high levels of certain behaviors, including criminality, social activity, and drug abuse. When Zuckerman began testing HSS individuals, they, too, showed unusually low MAO levels.
The enzyme's precise role isn't deal It regulates levels of at least three important neurotransmitters: norepinephrine, which arouses the brain in response to stimuli; dopamine, which is involved with the sensation of pleasure in response to arousal; and serotonin, which acts as a brake on norepinephrine and inhibits arousal. It's possible that high-sensation seekers have lower base levels of norepinephrine and thus, can tolerate more stimulation before triggering serotonin's dampening effect. High-sensation seekers may also have lower levels of dopamine and are thus in a chronic state of underarousal in the brain's pleasure centers.
Such individuals may turn to drugs, like cocaine, which mimic dopamine's pleasure reaction. But they may also use intense and novel stimulation, triggering norepinephrine's arousal reaction and getting rewarded by the dopamine pleasure reaction. "What you get is a combination of tremendous arousal with tremendous pleasure," Zuckerman speculates. "And the faster that arousal reaches its peak, the more intense your pleasure." Just as important, individuals may develop a tolerance for the pleasure reaction, and thus may need ever higher levels of stimulation--of risk--to achieve the same rush.
Today such an addictive dynamic may seem largely problematic. In prehistoric times it was very likely essential. Dopamine, for example, has known links to various "approach" behaviors: feeding, fighting, foraging, and exploration. Probably, the same mechanism that gave people like Derek Hersey a rush from climbing also rewarded their predecessors for the more necessary acts of survival.
Psychologist Aptor suggests that the willingness to take risks, even if expressed by only certain individuals, would have produced benefits for an entire group. Upon entering a new territory, a tribe would quickly need to assess the environment's safety in terms of "which water holes are safe to drink from, which caves are empty of dangerous animals." Some risk takers would surely die. But, Aptor points out, "it's better for one person to eat a poisonous fruit than for everybody."
Climbers are understandably leery of such explanations. They admit that they may be more inclined to take risks than the average human. But that inclination's ultimate expression, they argue, is largely a matter of personal volition. "At some level, there is a reason, chemical, mechanical, or whatever, for why we climb. But doesn't that take the 'human' element out of it, and make us all robots?" grouses Todd Wells, a 40-year-old climber from Chattanooga. "I climb so I don't feel like a robot, so I feel like I'm doing something that is motivated by the 'self.'"
Even physiologically oriented scientists like Zuckerman admit the dopamine reaction is only part of the risk-taking picture. Upbringing, personal experience, socio-economic status, and learning are all crucial in determining how that risk-taking impulse is ultimately expressed.
CULTURE OF ASCENT
Although many climbers report a childhood preference for thrills, their interest in climbing was often shaped externally, either through contact with older climbers or by reading about great expeditions. Upon entering the sport, novices are often immersed in a tight-knit climbing subculture, with its own lingo, rules of conduct, and standards of excellence.
This learned aspect may be the most important element in the formation of the high-sensation seeking personality. While risk taking may have arisen from neurochemicals and environmental influences, there is an intellectual or conscious side to it that is now not only distinct from them but is itself a powerful motivator. Working through a challenging climbing route, for example, generates a powerful sense of competence that can also provide climbers with a new-found confidence in their everyday life. "There is nothing more empowering than taking a risk and succeeding," says Farley.
No wonder scaling the face of a cliff is a potent act that can penetrate to the very essence of self and help reshape it. Many climbers report using that empowering dynamic to overcome some of their own inner obstacles. Among these, fear--of heights, of loss of control, of death--is the most commonly cited.
Richard Gottlieb, 42-year-old climber from New York, is known for climbing frozen waterfalls, one of the riskiest facets of the sport. But as a kid, he was too scared even to go to summer camp. "Yet there was something in me that wanted to get into some swashbuckling adventure," he says. Climbing satisfied that impulse while helping him overcome his fearful nature. Gottlieb believes climbing has helped him cope with his fear of death: "We open the door, see the Grim Reaper right there, but instead of just slamming the door, you push him back a few steps."
Traditional outlets for the risk-taking impulse have been disappearing from everyday life. As civilization steadily minimized natural risks, Aptor says, and as cultures have sought to maintain their hard-won stability through repressive laws and stifling social mores, risk takers have been forced to devise new outlets. In the 20th century, that has brought about a rise in thrill sports. But Aptor believes the tension between civilization and risk taking dates back eons. Aptor wonders how much of the British Empire "was built up by people trying to escape the desperately conformist society of Victorian England."
When channeled into sports like climbing, where skill and training can minimize danger, or into starting a new business, risk taking may continue to be a healthy psychological outlet. It may provide a means to cope with boredom and modern anxieties, to bolster self-esteem. Risk taking may provide a crucial sense of control in a period where so much of what happens--from crime and auto accidents to environmental disasters and economic downturns--seems almost random.
Unfortunately, the risk taking impulse doesn't always find such healthy outlets. Many high-sensation seekers don't have the money or the role models for sky diving or rock climbing, Zuckerman notes. "In such groups, the main forms of sensation seeking include sex, drugs, heavy drinking, gambling, and reckless driving." Indeed, sensation seeking may emerge as a critical factor in crime. No surprise, then, that some researchers place the risk taking personality in the "abnormal" category and regard high-risk takers almost as an evolutionarily obsolete subspecies. Maddi suggests that well-adjusted people are "good at turning everyday experience into something interesting. My guess is that the safecracker or the mountain climber can't do that as well. They have to do something exciting to get a sense of vitality. It's the only way they have of getting away from the sense that life sucks." Larsen is even blunter: "I think risk takers are a little sociopathic."
Farley is more optimistic. Even civilized society, he says, holds ample opportunity for constructive risk taking: investing in a high-stakes business venture, running for political office, taking an unpopular social stand. Farley argues that history's most crucial events are shaped by Big T behavior and Big T individuals, from Boris Yeltsin to Martin Luther King, Jr. The act of emigration, he says, is an intrinsically risky endeavor that selects individuals who are high in sensation seeking. Consequently, countries built upon immigrant population--America, Canada, Australia--probably have an above-aver-age level of risk takers. He warns that much of the current effort to minimize risk and. risk taking itself runs the risk of eliminating "a large part of what made this country great in the first place."
For all the societal aspects of this peculiar trait, the ultimate benefits may continue to be purely personal. "There's a freshness to the [climbing; experience that clears away the weariness of routine and the complexity of social norms," says Seattle climber Bill Pilling. "Climbing brings you back to a primal place, where values are being created and transformed."
To push away from society's rules and protections, Farley suggests, is the only way to get a sense of where "society" ends and "you" begin. "Taking a risk, stepping away from the guardrails, from the rules and the status quo, that's when you get a sense of who 'you' are," he says. "If you don't stretch, try to push past the frontiers, it's very difficult to know that."
PHOTO: Rock climbing
PHOTO: White-water rafting