Published on November 5th, 20125
The Psychology of Extreme Sports: Addicts, not Loonies
By Joachim Vogt Isaksen, HiNT
Extreme sport activities represent the most striking example of acts that go against our natural human instincts, which are designed to protect us from dangers. In this article I will look at what drives extreme sport participants toward high risk behavior that may lead to invalidity or early death.
On the 14th of October 2012 the Austrian Felix Baumgartner set the world record for skydiving. The jump was performed from 24 miles (39 kilometers) above the earth, reaching an estimated speed of 834 miles per hour (1,342 kph). Baumgartner is also famous for the particularly dangerous nature of the stunts he has performed during his career. His latest jump, which was the last in his career, received massive media coverage, and is one of the most spectacular stunts throughout human history.
Extreme sport participants are often portrayed in a negative way, for example as being unbalanced with a need to take unnecessary risks, not caring for family and friends that are left back worrying. However, psychological research indicates that the popular perception of the mad extreme sport participant needs some clarifications. This article will present some of the important research that has been done within the field, and will also discuss the motivation that drives people toward taking extreme risks.
How do extreme sport participants perceive risk experiences?
Who are the people involved in these dangerous activities? Do they display personality traits that are completely different from people who engage in more “normal” hobbies? In 2009 researchers Erik Brymer and Lindsay Oades did an interview study of 15 participants of leisure activities as B.A.S.E. jumping (building, antenna, span, earth), big wave surfing, extreme skiing, waterfall kayaking, extreme mountaineering, and solo roe-free climbing. A phenomenological method was used via unstructured interviews and other firsthand accounts. The study explored what can be learned from extreme sports about courage and humility—two positive psychological constructs. Results indicate that humility and courage can be deliberately sought out by participating in activities that involve a real chance of death and fear. One of their main findings were that extreme sport participants directly related their experience to personal transformations that in a postive way were spilled over to other areas in life.
Their experiences may point to a clearer understanding of the positive aspects of extreme sports. According to Michael Bane, author of the book Over the edge: a regular guys´ odyssey in extreme sport, extreme sports change people who participate in them. A bungee jumper might for example feel a certain rush of immortality. This may lead to psychological effects that have positive effects for life in general.
Overcoming the natural response to fear
Fear is a normal human emotional reaction; it is a built-in survival mechanism we are all equipped with. This emotion is a response to danger and serves a protective purpose, signaling us of threats and preparing us to deal with it. From an evolutionary perspective it seems illogical to take risks that may lead to death when there is no objective goal or anything to achieve from the activity a person displays. On the other hand it is sensible and logical to take risks if it serves the protection of oneself or ones´ own group from external dangers such as intruders or predators.
Evolution has programmed our genes to perform activities that will enhance the probability of survival, and it may seem natural to characterize behavior that go against these basic mechanisms as abnormal and dysfunctional. For extreme sport participants it is therefore important to build down the natural reaction of fear, and go against their natural instincts. Repeated exposure to fearful situations, such as tall bridges, may lead to familiarity toward the danger, and gradually a more positive emotional response. After continuous exposure to new fearful experiences the fear response is reduced. This leads some people to seek out ever new and bigger thrills.
At an intellectual level extreme sport participants are of course fully aware that each time they take part in these leisure activities death might be involved. Even if fear is hardwired into our genes with the purpose of protecting us from dangers, the emotional response to fear is individual. People who seek extreme sports perceive fear as something positive.
Extreme sports and physical addiction
Despite the fact that evolutionary logic has designed us with mechanisms that prevent us from dangers, our brain is also equipped with reward mechanisms that are activated when we are subjected to extreme experiences. The neuropsychologists have a good understanding of how the reward systems in the brain respond to fear. These are deep structures that involve the nerve signal dopamine which is released in the brain following extreme experiences. The feeling of transformation the people reported in the interviews may stem from the release of this hormone that creates feelings of optimism and happiness.
Dopamine plays an important role in the reward- and motivational systems in the brain, and high levels of it leads to feelings of well-being. Therefore one may conclude that the effect of overcoming fear may lead to positive psychological outcomes. The experience of fear induced by risk may be compared to the response people have after surviving dramatic incidents such as serious illness, car accidents or traumas. People often report that these experiences change their lives. Such experiences may in the longer run lead to personal development and increased appreciation of life.
Dopamine is the most important nerve signal involved in drug experiences and its effect is desirable and addictive. Extreme experiences may in the same way trigger the reward system and people may feel that they are addicted to the experiences. The brain will not differentiate between the degrees of safety of the activities you perform, whether it is bungee jumping or whether it is the state of being in love. What is important is whether the activity results in the release of the nerve signals involved in the brain´s reward system.
The myth of the crazy extreme sport participant
After all, the often negative popular view of the extreme sport participant needs some clarifications. The participants are well-trained with the aim of reducing the risk of the activity. One could assume that it is not the danger in itself that motivates the athletes, but instead it may be an addiction to the biochemical reaction within the brain that leads to the state of joy and well-being. One could therefore look at extreme sport participants as addicts to the body´s natural drugs.
When extreme sport participants stop performing these activities the brain stops producing the drugs that make them feel good. The ultimate goal and motivation behind the activities is the “natural high” induced by the release of dopamine, whereas the risks involved might be considered negative side effects. Although, the positive bodily effects are so strong and longed for that they triumph the high risk of serious injury or death.
Bane, Michael. (1996). Over the edge: a regular guys´ odyssey in extreme sports. New York: Macmillian.
Brymer, Erik., & Oades, Lindsay G. (2009). “Extreme sports: A positive transformation in courage and humility.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 49: 114-126.
Gower, Paul L. (2003) Psychology of Fear. Nova Science Pub Inc.