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

excessive, extreme sports
A hiker balances over a cliff. Credit: Glen Info

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

But what makes us assume these risks? Some recent studies suggest that taking on high degrees of risk is inherent in the construction of the brain 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, mostly young males, and declines with age. This topic is very much on the frontier of scientific debate and various schools of thought have come up with different ways of explaining risk and why people act particular ways. 

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

Some scientists believe that 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.

Some scientists believe that society makes us more risky. 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. In other words, people who get easily bored with their lives take on more risk 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 believe that certain humans have a high-risk gene that has aided our species and has helped us advance to the top of the food chain. Primitive human 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 risk. I remember being in a lift line and hearing some other guys talk about skiing and I seriously thought they were speaking another language. Learning the culture of the sport, lingo, code of ethics or conduct (lift line etiquette!), standards of excellence, are all powerful reinforcement factors. Culture can lead to people taking on individual excessive risk because they see their friends doing the activity. Groups can aid individuals to assume risk and face fears, whether those fears are height or death.

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

While this is still very much a frontier scientific topic (especially in extreme sports), the causes of people taking excessive risk could possibly be boiled down to a mixture of nature vs nurture. However, one thing is true, risk is a personal preference. People can assume risk is various different 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.”