Risk Taking in Extreme Sports | Why Do We Do Things That Could Kill or Injure Us?

Greg Obernesser | | BrainsBrains
excessive, extreme sports
A hiker balances over a cliff. Credit: Glen Info

According to Psychology Today, some researchers define risk-taking as engaging in any activity with an uncertain outcome. It is indisputable that activities such as skiing, climbing, mountain biking, etc., are all somewhat extreme sports that involve an element of risk. These sports are extreme because the outcomes can be pretty dire and inflict severe injury or even death. Within the context of these sports, people are assuming more risks. Today, adventure tourism is a multimillion-dollar industry that attracts many people to these activities.

But what makes us assume these risks? Some recent studies suggest that taking on high risk is inherent in the brain’s construction and is linked to arousal and pleasure mechanisms. Due to this, thrill-seeking may be the same as an addiction that affects 1-in-5 people, primarily young males, and declines with age. This topic is on the frontier of scientific debate, and various schools of thought have devised different ways of explaining risk and why people act in particular ways. 

risk, extreme sports
A slackliner balances on a rope between two cliffs. Credit: BBC

Some scientists believe excessive risk-taking is connected to biology and people’s brains craving stimuli. Scientist Marvin Zuckerberg of the University of Delaware states that some people have high sensation-seeking (HSS) personalities. Climbers are a great example of high sensation seekers and score higher on risk-preference tests. Most demand challenging tasks and seek out environments, massive cliff faces, or frozen waterfalls that most people’s brains or instincts are geared to avoid. Zuckerberg argues that the cortical system of an HSS person can handle higher levels of stimulation without overloading their brain and switching to the fight-or-flight response.

In the age of seatbelts, guardrails, laws, rules, regulations, etc., there is a sense in western civilizations that the sense of survival or life has been dulled, and scientists have been trying to grapple with the Risk Paradox; the safer we make life, the more risks we take. Some scientists believe that society makes us riskier. In other words, people who get quickly bored with their lives take on more risks to liven it up. A good ski example would be the more safety precautions (yellow jackets, mandatory safety bars, roped-off ski runs) we take, the more people push the envelope, ski recklessly, and try to get thrills.

sports, extreme sports
A backcountry ski gate warning. Credit: Gulmarg Avalanche Advisory

Some scientists believe genetics has something to do with people assuming excessive risk. They think certain humans have a high-risk gene that has aided our species and helped us advance to the top of the food chain. Primitive humans in a hunter-gatherer society could have benefited from people taking the risk of eating poisonous fruit or vegetables in return for valuable societal knowledge. This is also present in the modern era. For example, think of the 1962 moon landing, civil rights demonstrations, or (ski example) Shane McConkey. Certain people with the gene assumed excessive risk for the advancement of society or area of interest.

Lastly, scientists believe there is a learned cultural element to people taking risks. Understanding the culture of the sport, lingo, code of ethics or conduct (lift line etiquette!), and standards of excellence are all powerful reinforcement factors. Culture can lead to people taking excessive risks because they see their friends doing the activity. Groups can aid individuals in assuming risks and facing fears, whether those fears are height or death. I remember being in a lift line and hearing some other guys talk about skiing, and I seriously thought they were speaking another language.

While this is still a frontier scientific topic (especially in extreme sports), the causes of people taking excessive risks could be boiled down to a mixture of nature vs. nurture. However, one thing is true, risk is a personal preference. People can assume risk in various ways that don’t have to inflict bodily harm. People can use risk to grow and learn about themselves. Or, better put by University of Wisconsin professor Frank Farley;

risk taking is to find the point where society ends and you begin, taking risk involves stepping away from the status quo to get a sense of who you are.”

climbing, extreme sports
Alex Honnold free soloing. Credit: Dreaming of Gnar

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6 thoughts on “Risk Taking in Extreme Sports | Why Do We Do Things That Could Kill or Injure Us?

  1. And that’s what Madison ave. is selling, unfortunately, these days. Before it was the hip hop life, now it’s extreme sports. Which is a stupid term.

  2. No wingsuit jumpers mentioned?
    Huh? What?
    Guess that’s considered far too nominal these days eh?
    The psychology doesnt go far enough to address dna part of warrior type human gene which no longer gets stimulated in this so artificial and tech driven insta button society we now live in.
    Therefore thrill seekers alike need to find proper outlets other than our cushy standard of living which doesnt stimulate certain brain receptors.

  3. As a guy who suddenly developed heights vertigo 25 years age, I’m intrigued with this subject. My risk taking was mild compared to whats published now. I like to pay attention to human risk and societal trends.

    I buy “some scientists” #2 and 4 theories.

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