They bring down banks, squander huge fortunes on reckless pursuits and in their spare time are found clinging to vertical rocks or leaping out of aeroplanes – Mike Peake investigates what makes men gamble with their lives, seeking the ultimate thrill
Would you throw yourself off a cliff or jump out of a plane? The psychological and physical reasons behind why men take risks.
When New Zealand-based forensic psychiatrist Dr Erik Monasterio set out to interview people for a study he was conducting into risk-taking behaviour, 90 per cent of the mountaineers he spoke to were men. For base jumping – the adrenaline-pumping sport where the order of the day is to fling yourself off the top of something high – the figure was 80 per cent. He didn’t go looking for male respondents, he took whoever came his way, which turned out to be guys by the bucketload.
That single fact alone perhaps illustrates better than anything that it is men who are drawn to risk. Whether it’s on the trading floor or strapped to a parachute above a snow-covered mountain, men and risk are as familiar bedfellows as women and romantic comedies, kids and candy. And – unfortunately – skydivers and funeral directors.
In a world that is becoming increasingly risk averse, thrill seekers stand out like sore thumbs. Living by their own set of rules and often at loggerheads with conventional thinking, they actively seek out a route to exhilaration that will provide an alternative to the humdrum of everyday life – even though the act of living out their dreams can all too frequently end in disaster. But what drives them? Why are their numbers growing? And why are women so infrequently a part of their circle?
“We know that testosterone is a hormone linked to risk-taking behaviour,” says Dr Monasterio. “So the preponderance of male participants in extreme sports is partially due to differences in sex hormones. We also know that in general, women tend to be more prone to anxiety, and if you’re more prone to anxiety common sense would suggest that you stay away from risk.”
Hormones and chemicals clearly play a part, says Dr Monasterio, but there’s more to it than that. “They’re not determinants,” he says. “They’re just part of a whole range of factors that contribute to risk-taking behaviour.” A common understanding about extreme risk-takers is that they underestimate the dangers of their activities and think that luck will see them through. Dr Monasterio’s studies, however, have demonstrated this is not true. “People who do extreme sports know exactly what they’re doing,” says Dr Monasterio, himself an experienced climber who survived his first few years on the mountains with a “self-belief that was disproportionate to my experience”.
“They understand the risks, but they’re fine with them and continue doing it,” he says. “It isn’t just blind optimism that it’s only your mate who’s going to get hurt.”
The key motivating factor, he says, is the thrill itself. The rewards risk-takers get from their extreme behaviour are so significant that they allow them to tolerate the risks.
In other words, you know you might die – or if your risk-taking is done in a bank, you
know you might cause a financial meltdown – but you do it anyway.
It’s a challenging concept that makes you wonder if the rest of us, perhaps, are missing out on something. If your biggest exposure to risk to date is an afternoon’s waterskiing or a gentle climb up a challenging hill, might the “high” of extreme, risk-taking behaviour be something you have never even come close to? And just how good is it anyway?
“We are risk junkies!” says Frenchman Loïc Jean-Albert, who broke his back in a paragliding accident in 2007. “It needs a lot of willpower to stop chasing the adrenaline.”
Jean-Albert was one of the pioneers of wingsuit flying – wingsuits being those strange, flappy bodysuits where strips of material link each ankle and also the wrists to the waist – but had to give up his thrill-seeking activities after a near-fatal collision with a rock at 100kph.
He says that coming to terms with a ‘safer’ life was “easy to say, but not so easy to do,” and recalls how seeing the movie Avatar brought home the finality of his decision to quit. “Tears came to my eyes when the guy rode the dragon for the first time,” he says, still greatly affected by the memory. It was a painful reminder that the freedom he once felt from whizzing through the skies with the wind in his face was a thing of the past.
Today Jean-Albert flies helicopters and aeroplanes – which might sound like a risky job to the average person, but not to him. Not that he ever considered life as a wingsuit flyer pro to be dangerous, either.
“Risk was exactly what I was trying to avoid,” he says. And yet everyone in the extreme sports community must wonder when it is their turn for something to go wrong. “Serious accidents amongst base jumpers happen once every 200-300 jumps,” says Dr Monasterio, “And about two-thirds of the jumpers we spoke to had already had a major injury. We asked them how often they thought serious injuries occurred, wondering if they would seriously underestimate, but they were spot on.”
Somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, extreme sportsmen are frequently among the most careful people you could ever hope to meet. When the margins for error are so minuscule, you do everything in your power to try to keep the odds in your favour – and that includes packing up and going home if it doesn’t feel right. “Shane and I dissected every stunt,” says JT Holmes, a base jumper who lost his best friend Shane McConkey in an accident in the Dolomites in 2009. “If each component was something you were comfortable with, you went for it, and if anything wasn’t right, you’d say no. And that happens. You walk away.”
What no one could have foreseen was the perfect storm of bad luck that stopped Shane
For many adrenaline junkies, the pursuit of risky activities seems to be hardwired. And very hard to suppress
from opening his parachute in time to stop his freefall that fateful day in the mountains. He died instantly. But JT didn’t quit – though he did think about it – and today makes sure his jumps are more about “quality than quantity”.
For many adrenaline junkies, the pursuit of risky activities seems to be hardwired. And very hard to suppress. “When I was a young mountaineer I needed strong experiences to get a sense of ‘aliveness’,” says Dr Monasterio. “When I did, I felt rewarded, but only when I really pushed myself and felt like I was living on the edge. It was a sense of inner peace I’ve never had from anything else.”
Interestingly, Dr Monasterio – who interviewed 100 base jumpers for his study, which is about 10 per cent of their worldwide population – has seen parallels between extreme risk-takers and the criminals his work has exposed him to.
“Some of the base jumpers are pretty extreme, almost getting into the domain of pathology where they are slaves to their instinct,” he says.
“The interesting question for me is why do some people choose to express their risk-taking instinct in antisocial ways? Why do some choose crime or violence over extreme sports? And if you push kids towards thrill-seeking sports at an early age, can you push them away from antisocial behaviour?”
Dr Monasterio talks about character traits like “sensation-seeking” and “harm avoidance”, thrill-seekers typically scoring high on the former and low on the latter. Surprisingly, though, extreme sportswomen often score quite high when it comes to harm avoidance – a personality trait that is characterised by high levels of worry, doubt and pessimism. Something utterly at odds with thrill-seeking behaviour, then, and perhaps one of the reasons that the bulk of the world’s risk-takers are men.
It is men bringing down banks (remember Nick Leeson and French stocks trader JérÔme Kerviel?); and it is men – mostly – to be found clinging to vertical rocks or happily leaping out of aeroplanes.
“The popularity of adventure sports is growing exponentially,” says Dr Monasterio, “and I think it’s a reflection of living in an increasingly risk-averse society where we try to control things. In the olden days, men used to go to war and life used to be a lot more
uncertain. I think extreme sports help satisfy those instincts.” Some men, he says, simply have a need to “get out there and live adventurously”. And he argues that adventure sports are a very valid way of doing that.
The smart way, of course, is to give in to these desires in as safe a way as possible. If thrill-seeking tendencies are locked into your chemical make-up, denial could prove unbearable. Like forcing a lion to eat broccoli.
“Your instincts need to be expressed,” Dr Monasterio insists. “If you have a young guy who’s strongly drawn towards risktaking behaviour and he’s sitting there as an accountant, I think it’s likely to fail.
“The best way to is to say, ‘This is how I’m made, I need these experiences and if I’m going to do them I’m going to do them in a way that is not antisocial and also which maximises my chances of survival.”
If the urge is taking you, then maybe you should go for it. Take a leaf out of Omar Samra’s book, perhaps – he was the youngest Arab to climb Everest in 2007, when he was 29. Or turn up at Skydive Dubai, which will let you do a tandem jump from a plane for just Dh1,750 and will even give you a video to prove you really did it. Just remember to smile for the cameras and tell yourself that you’re having fun.
But before you set off don’t you want to ensure you’ve informed your insurance company? And said goodbye to the cat? Maybe that nice afternoon’s waterskiing would have been fine after all…
If taking risks is in your make-up, it’s hard to hold back. Just make sure that when you leap out of a plane, you know what you’re doing – play smart and safe