RISKY MIX

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.

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JON WELLS

“CAU­TION/STEEP CLIFFS/DO NOT CLIMB FENCE” warns the sign, which in­cludes a draw­ing of a stick fig­ure fall­ing from a crum­bling precipice.

A 24-

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.

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