Skydivers and Risk-Taking Behavior
Parachutist December 2009
by Vic Napier
The science of risk taking is a relatively new field of study. Of particular interest to skydivers are two related fields of study, one of which details sensation-seeking behavior in individuals and another that looks into how groups of people approach risk.
Risk Taking as an Individual Personality Trait
Dr. Marvin Zuckerman of the University of Delaware has been studying risk behaviors as a personality trait for more than forty years. He became curious about it during the early 1960s while he was studying sensory deprivation—the psychological effects that ensue when people do not experience light, sound, touch, taste or smell. The brain is an organ that lives to process information. Take that information away and a wide variety of reactions can occur occur—everything from boredom, anxiety and a dulling of intelligence to full blown visual and auditory hallucinations. Curious about why some people experienced extreme reactions and others did not, Zuckerman began developing questionnaires modeled after personality tests.
He quickly found that a significant portion of the population engaged in a range of behaviors primarily aimed at generating novel sensations. Zuckerman calls it “sensation seeking.” The subjects of his sensory deprivation experiments seemed to be of two types—those who needed the money paid for participating and those who wanted the unusual experience. Zuckerman noted that the latter group tended to include people with long hair, those who carried motorcycle helmets and those who dressed in unusual styles. This observation led him to refine his questionnaires to include participants’ activities outside the laboratory.
Over the years, Zuckerman found out enough about sensation seeking to write a couple of scholarly books about the topic and produce more than a hundred academic research papers. He studied gamblers, entrepreneurs, delinquents and risk-sports enthusiasts such as skydivers, BASE jumpers and rock climbers.
In 2000 he published proof that behavioral risk taking is associated with a particular gene that codes neurons for interaction with brain chemicals. The D4DR gene is a short version of the gene that influences the way brain cells process dopamine and serotonin – the “gas pedal and brake” of brain activity. It seems that risk takers need more stimulation to get the same level of excitement that others do. This explains why skydivers report that making a jump can be both stimulating and relaxing—stimulating because excitement activates the “thrill center” of the brain, and relaxing because of the sense of calm that comes afterward.
Subgroups of Sensation Seekers
Not all risk takers are equal in terms of the stimulation they pursue. There are four distinct subgroups, although a good deal of overlap occurs. These subgroups are:
This refers to those who engage in physically risky behaviors. Activities such as skydiving, motorcycling, BASE jumping and scuba diving supply the sensations thrill-and-adventure seekers crave.
Some sensation seekers revel in novel experiences within the mind. Intellectual pursuits, art, music and culture are the playgrounds for these folks. They may travel to experience different cultures or create new cultures at home, such as the punk movement or Goth culture.
People who lack inhibition tend to be gregarious, outgoing and socially oriented. These are the partygoers, spouse swappers, recreational drinkers and drug users.
As the name implies, these are people who have a low tolerance for predictability and constantly look for new sensations. (There has been speculation that Attention Deficit Disorder and boredom susceptibility might be related. Very little is known about the exact mechanism of the brain chemistry involved in these traits, but they are probably closely related.)
In general, the thrill-and-adventure-seeking type is likely the best fit for most skydivers. However, jumpers probably identify with most of these traits, and skydivers are famous for their parties, love of new music and styles, and low tolerance for predictability. Jumping from an airplane satisfies the need for the thrill-and-adventure seeker; it is the other aspects that produce freefly, swoop competitions and stunts such as jumping with rafts, cars and bicycles.
These subgroups address the question of why individuals are attracted to different kinds of sensation seeking and open the door to exploring other activities as sensation-seeking behaviors—For example, serial entrepreneurs who work hard and take great risks to launch a business but become bored when the business is secure, so start another one.
Another way to look at risk is through the theory of risk homeostasis. Skydivers seem to love the theory of risk homeostasis. It is easy to understand, intuitively attractive and explains risk as a balancing act. The basic idea is that each of us has a level of risk with which are comfortable, and we change our behavior to maintain this level of risk.
The theory is the brainchild of Dr. Gerald Wilde at the Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Wilde was studying traffic safety when he noticed that data on traffic accidents revealed unexpected results. For example, accident mortality rates stayed the same for the first 75 years of the 20th century, despite constant additions to auto safety devices, laws intended to increase safety and improvements in road technology. Interestingly, average speeds increased at about the same rate as safety improvements.
As Wilde thought about it and examined more statistics, he constructed the theory of risk homeostasis. For example, when driving, we slow down when the pavement gets wet and speed up when it is dry. Since wet pavement increases the risk of getting into an accident, we slow down to maintain the same level of risk as when we’re driving on dry pavement. To complicate matters, our accepted level of risk changes with circumstances. If we are late for work, we will tolerate more risk and drive faster than we might otherwise. This is why risk homeostasis is sometimes called offsetting behavior or risk compensation.
A study of accident data collected when driver side-airbags were hitting the market showed that accident rates and fatalities increased for cars equipped with airbags. It seems that early adopters of airbag-equipped vehicles bought such vehicles because they tended to dive more aggressively, and increased that behavior when driving airbag-equipped cars.
The Open-Canopy Fatality Study
In 1999, I wrote a paper examining open-canopy fatalities. Throughout the 1990s, the number of skydivers getting killed under fully open canopies was increasing every year. It was clear that part of the reason was the introduction and phenomenal popularity of parachutes made of zero-porosity (ZP) fabric. Ram-air canopies made of ZP fabric are able to be pressurized at much greater levels than older types of canopies and made a much more efficient airfoil, translating to higher speed and greater performance. Landing miscalculations which might have once resulted in a broken leg now resulted in crippling injuries and deaths.
As I reviewed the fatality data and considered the different possibilities, I noticed that AAD sales were increasing during the same time. I remembered a grizzled old master rigger muttering, “Every time you make skydiving safer, skydivers will figure out a way to make it dangerous again.” This was a very accurate restatement of the theory of risk homeostasis and was a likely avenue for investigation.
At the time, SSK Industries was the only U.S. distributor of Cypres AAD units, and Cliff Schmucker very graciously shared his sales and maintenance information with me. At that time, any Cypres unit that fired had to be sent to SSK to be refitted with a cutter. Using SSK’s sales and AAD activation data, I found that there was a strong correlation between Cypres saves and open canopy fatalities, as well as a correlation between the increasing numbers of Cypres units in use and increasing open-canopy fatalities. One of the graphs showed a spooky relationship in which Cypres saves one year were followed by an increase in open-canopy fatalities the next, as if news of increasing safety was manifested a year later in more dangerous behaviors.
Correlation is not causation, but these results strongly supported the theory of risk homeostasis. Unfortunately, one of the problems with the theory is that it is very hard to apply measurement. Science is all about defining things and measuring their effects; looking at things from the perspective of risk homeostasis theory makes measurement and definition incredibly complex. However, it still has value by presenting behavioral risk in a way that everyone can understand.
This is an exciting time for people interested in sensation seeking. Although Zuckerman’s and Wilde’s theories don’t immediately solve the risk-taking dilemma, they do provide us with insight and a starting point. The study of risk has application to vexing social problems like juvenile delinquency, sexual risk taking, drug abuse and domestic violence. And maybe, just maybe, people who would otherwise ruin their lives engaging in destructive behaviors (and creating huge social costs) could satisfy their need for excitement more appropriately by taking up sports—sports like skydiving.
Those interested in learning more about risk homeostasis can read Vic Napier’s study, which was edited by Casey Findley and Dr. Ron Self of Auburn University and presented at the 2007 American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences conference, at www.vicnapier.com. Readers can also find an in-depth study of the subject in Dr. Gerald Wilde’s book “Target Risk.”