Why do some people take chances that seem to carry decent odds of injury or death, while others won’t risk eating food cooked in tin foil? It’s in their heads. And genes. And blame evolution while you’re at it.
“CAUTION/STEEP CLIFFS/DO NOT CLIMB FENCE” warns the sign, which includes a drawing of a stick figure falling from a crumbling precipice.
YEAR-OLD MAN walks past the sign and does not hesitate.
He grasps a spot between spikes on the black iron fence and hoists himself over, sticking the landing on a slender platform of rock. One more big step equals a 22-metre (70-foot) plunge to injury or perhaps death.
This was on a hot afternoon at Webster’s Falls in Dundas, the loud whoosh of cascading water enticing visitors to get closer than the rules allow.
A handful of people gingerly hiked a narrow winding path to the bottom of Spencer Gorge (another sign: “No Access To Gorge”) after they climbed the fence or crawled under it where someone had dug a mini-trench.
Blame it on sociology, brain chemistry, genetics and the news media (fake! and otherwise), but our relationship with risk-taking is complicated.
Summertime is another part of the equation. Hamilton ER nurses call it ‘trauma season’ for the frequency of outdoor accidents and car crashes.
THE GUY WHO hopped the fence, Eric Goessele, says he has toned down his behaviour.
“I’m less impulsive than I used to be … I’ve become safer as I’ve gotten older.”
Maybe in his younger days he balanced on one foot at the cliff’s edge or hurdled the fence blindfolded.
Going daredevil or mildly careless, he is making instant and subconscious cost-benefit calculations of risk — also called “outcome variance.” To him, the pleasure of taking the risk outweighs the (relatively low) odds of something terrible happening.
The same is true of a young man and woman who climbed over and took a selfie with their backs to the gorge.
“It’s almost like an adrenalin rush,” says Kristen Bui, who is from Kitchener and seeing the falls for the first time. “One wrong step and you’d go right over.”
Others push the envelope further: Last week, a woman was saved in a rope rescue at Albion Falls, the seventh time Hamilton firefighters have had to spring into action at waterfalls this year. A photographer from Toronto fell to his death at Albion Falls last month.
Opportunity is part of what’s going on. The city’s reputation for waterfall tourism continues to grow; this week, an article in Washington D.C.-based Smithsonian Magazine declared Hamilton “the true waterfall capital of the world.”
Summertime is another part of the equation. Hamilton ER nurses call it “trauma season” for the frequency of outdoor accidents and car crashes.
RISK- TAKING IS NOT strictly a function of gender, but statistically males engage in more of it than women, and die more frequently as a result.
Younger males are most susceptible of all, and even more so when part of a group dynamic — called the “risky shift” phenomenon.
The male tendency toward risk is in part an evolutionary adaptation, rooted in a competitive instinct to impress others and make themselves a more attractive mate.
Sandeep Mishra, a former McMaster University student who is a psychologist teaching at the University of Regina’s business school, says this evolutionary drive is a subtle influence.
“There is not a perfect association,” he says, adding that age is the single best predictor of risk-taking.
Younger people are more likely to be among those who court perceived risk, but once in a relationship that urge diminishes.
“And when they have kids, the risk-taking plummets. But if they are widowed or leave a relationship, we see it increase again.”
(Or, as Bob Dylan put it: “When you ain’t got nothing/You got nothing to lose.”)
McMaster psychology professor Martin Daly, who has researched risk-taking behaviour for years, writes of how some of history’s great explorers, while from aristocratic families, were later-born sons with less to lose in a dangerous expedition that promised possible rewards.
For these men, choosing the lowerrisk option of staying home “had scarcely more utility than the more dramatic disasters associated with failure under the high risk option.”
Canadians who volunteered to serve in the First World War might be another example; soldiers making a subconscious calculation that the well-publicized risk of death fighting in the trenches was worth it, given their prospects staying home.
TOSS INTO THE RISKY MIX
brain chemistry and genetics.
Research suggests that perhaps 30 per cent of humans are born with a shortage of dopamine receptors in the brain, which means they require heightened sensory experiences to get the same baseline level of pleasure as most people.
Meanwhile, a gene (called neuroD2) that helps control our fear response may be acting up, or rather down: everyone has two of these “daredevil genes,” but with varying concentrations of the protein the genes produce. Higher levels lead to safer instincts, and lower levels to risk-taking.
(There is a YouTube video of a lab experiment that shows a mouse out of his maze, scampering atop a high ledge out in the open, caution thrown to the wind. He was engineered to have just one of these genes.)
IT BEGS THE QUESTION of what’s up with those at the other end of the spectrum — the risk-averse, who avoid imagined dangers such as cooking food in tin foil (claimed, falsely, to cause Alzheimer’s) or overblown risks like flying.
The information age stokes fears with infinite cautionary tales and contradictory messages that warn of “11 ways gluten can damage your health,” and yet “a gluten-free diet can do more harm than good.” A headline declares “More people die from selfies than shark attacks”; another boasts of “debunking the myth that selfies are more deadly than shark attacks.”
(On average, there are 16 shark attacks per year in the U.S. with one fatality every two years.)
And for those who want to cut to the chase, online tests allow you to “predict if you’ll die within the next five years.”
When you fear scenarios that are widely reported but exceedingly uncommon, psychologists call it an “availability heuristic” — meaning you anticipate the frequency of an event based on how easily it comes to mind.
Terrorist attacks would be one example, the SARS outbreak scare in 2003 another, when Telehealth Ontario was receiving 10,000 calls per day about the disease. (In the end, 44 Canadians died from SARS, all of them in Toronto; nearly double that many die from meningitis every year in Canada.)
Will waterfall accidents enter that category, where fear and caution — and vigorous bylaw enforcement — is belied by the actual risk? Media is all over the story. It is clearly a safety issue, but when considering the scores of people visiting Hamilton’s 20 waterfalls that are at least 15 metres high, injuries are rare.
Sandeep Mishra cites bungee jumping as an example of the subjective nature of our risk-taking antennae. It might seem reckless, and it is more reckless than sitting in a chair in your backyard, but serious injury or death is highly unlikely. It’s all about perception, he says.
“There is not a high variance of outcome involved; it is sensation seeking, and less risky than driving in a car on the highway, which is the riskiest thing any of us do on a regular basis.”
(More than 2,000 Canadians die in car accidents each year; about 70 per cent of them are male.)
It’s an open question whether some people are by nature riskprone not just in one “domain” but in everything they do. Are those who hop fences at waterfalls more inclined to drive too fast, gamble and swim alone?
IN THE 1960S, U.S. psychologist Marvin Zuckerman pioneered the “sensation seeking scale,” and suggested that some exhibit risk-taking as a “stable personality characteristic.”
Daredevil Evel Knievel — he called himself an “explorer,” which is the word he had put on his tombstone — would seem to fit that description.
When I was a kid, I was captivated by his motorcycle jumps over cars and buses on TV. My best friend P.J., who lived across the street, was also a fan.
We came up with a great idea: invite friends to watch P.J. jump his bicycle off a homemade ramp and over piles of bricks. He wiped out a few times. Me? I promoted the events, remaining on solid ground, neurod2 genes no doubt flooding my brain with caution.
Knievel died 10 years ago not in a fiery crash but from respiratory disease. Late in his life, he channeled the philosopher René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) when he was asked by a talk-show host why he attempted a death-wish jump over Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a rocketpowered “sky cycle.”
“If you thought you had a coin flip’s chance that you might buy it and die, why do it?”
Knievel paused a beat and growled: “You know who the hell I am?”
A man stands at the edge of Albion Falls. Recent signage and fencing installed by the city did little to deter people from taking risks at the popular spot.
A woman is rescued by emergency personnel after injuring her leg at Albion Falls. Despite the chain-link fence around access points to the falls, numerous hikers were making their way around and through the barriers to access the falls, which has been the scene of numerous accidents, including a fatal one this year. Are those who hop fences at waterfalls more inclined to drive too fast, gamble and swim alone?
Ignoring the signs, Eric Goessele, 24, hopped the fence guarding the gorge at Webster’s Falls to get a better look. He is standing a couple of feet from the cliff’s edge.
Daredevil Evel Knievel would seem to fit the description of risk-taking as a “stable personality characteristic.”
Recent signage and fencing installed by the city has not deterred people from getting to this dangerous ledge.