Americans dangle from hang gliders and parachutes; they race their cars, powerboats, snowmobiles, and dirt bikes; they stand on their hands upon skateboards, climb rocks without safety ropes, and pay to bungee-jump off towers. Less adventurous "adrenaline junkies" ride roller coasters with lethal-sounding names like Roaring Lightning or Big Death.
Why, despite the well-publicized lethality of such recreational risk-taking, do people continue to engage in such behaviors? Is there perhaps some need to flirt with death in order to feel "alive"? Scholars have discerned a blend of physiological, psychological, social psychological, and cultural causes.
Three-quarters of adolescent deaths are caused by accidents, homicide, and suicide, indicating a propensity for lethal risk-taking. Accidents alone account for 60 percent of this total. Though most recognize adolescence as a developmental period when risk-taking is a common form of testing one's identity and abilities, such behaviors need not be life threatening. As accidental deaths became the leading cause of death in this age group (which was the only one in which mortality had increased since 1960), in 1987 the federal government and various foundations financed research to study the reasons for the reckless behavior.
Psychological paradigms predominated, with explanations focusing on adolescents' lesser ability to evaluate risk and a life cycle, developmental need for excitement that blunts comprehension of
Analysts also noted the role of sensation- or thrill-seeking personality types. Even in adulthood, such risk-takers are more prone to high-risk undertakings like parachuting from planes, risky business deals, substance abuse, or even criminal activity. Such risky business might have a biological underpinning. A 1998 UCLA study reported the discovery of two types of mutant genes underlying compulsive novelty-seeking behaviors. The researchers claimed that 30 percent of the population is born with one of the thrill-seeking genes, and 20 percent with both. In addition, the neurotransmitter dopamine has been linked to sensation-seeking behavior and, at elevated levels, to drug abuse and schizophrenia. Richard Epstein and his fellow researchers found a link between novelty-seeking and a form of the D4 dopamine receptor gene.
Another psychological thesis is that a portion of such behavior stems from the quest for immortality. World-class athletes and those in the midst of a potentially lethal situation describe the sensation of transcendence while in "the zone," which they describe as a timeless and deathless realm where everything seems to stop and go silent.
Risk-taking is also a means of attracting attention and thus enhancing self-esteem, as when teenage girls were found demonstrating their toughness by having unprotected sex with HIV-infected gang members in San Antonio, Texas. Thrill-seeking behavior has long been a way that young adult males have attempted to win the admiration of their peer groups and to attract members of the opposite sex. War is one traditional social solution for harnessing such drives by putting them into the service of the state.
The argument for a cultural component to thrill-seeking is reinforced by the absence of reports of extreme sports and other thrill-seeking activities in developing nations. For instance, in the late 1990s the world's top-ranked male paragliders were from Austria, Japan, Switzerland, and Italy; the top women were from Denmark, Czech Republic, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France, and Norway. Perhaps where death is a risk in everyday life, such contrived dangers are superfluous. In the past, society controlled the opportunities for such experiences: for example, in painful and challenging rites of passage and war, and in dangerous occupations as fishing, mining, and logging. Nature did her part with frequent bouts of lethal disease. Like animals in zoos, humans in modern societies do not face the environmental challenges for which they are hardwired.
A study comparing Indian males who had applied for Canadian immigration visas with a matched nonimmigrant group found that sensation-seeking and belief in an unpredictable world were two of the personality types that distinguished the two groups. Given the fact that the United States is basically populated with immigrants (the 2000 Census found 10.4% of the population to be foreign-born) and their descendents, it would seem reasonable to assume that among the developed nations, the United States has a disproportionate share of thrill- or sensation-seeking personality types, as psychologist Frank Farley claims.
Countering such risk-taking appetites has been the trend in modern countries to eradicate risk, such as through seatbelt regulations, Pure Food and Drug Act, bankruptcy laws, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Warning labels abound, with laws requiring their placement on five-gallon buckets (so children will not fall in them and drown) and step-ladders (30% the price of which goes to cover potential liabilities). On the packaging of one brand of electric iron appeared "Do not iron clothes on body"; on a child's Superman costume: "Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly."
Out of this sanitized and risk-free cultural setting emerged during the end of the century extreme sports, featuring such activities as dirt-jumping on bicycles, sky surfing, inline skating, freestyle motocross (which combines motorcycles and ski-like jumping), ice cycling, snowboarding, and skateboarding on half pipes—reactions against what the extreme skier Kristin Ulmer, in The Extreme Game, calls a "scaredy-cat culture." Risk-taking became commodified leisure as the marketplace, seeking to profit from the new norm, generated extreme sports parks, new lines of clothing and footwear, nutritional additives, and televised X-games. The movement was significant enough that in 1999 the United States became the first country to honor extreme sports on its postage stamps.
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Farley, Frank. "The Type T Personality." In Lewis P. Lipsett and Leonard L. Mitnick eds., Self-Regulatory Behavior and Risk Taking: Causes and Consequences. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishers, 1991.
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MICHAEL C. KEARL