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

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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

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