Bungee jumping, cliff diving, jumping out of a plane… from space!? What are people thinking?

by Ali Schumacher on October 17, 2012

‘Diving into and out of the sky’ adapted from flikrCC.net

As the Little Engine that could chugged up the steep hill, he said to himself again and again, “I think I can.  I think I can.”  Simply change that statement to “I know I can. I know I can,” strap on a parachute, and the Little Engine could be happily soaring through the air, free-falling to earth. If you think it takes some major self-assurance to jump out of a plane or off a cliff, you’re right.  Research shows that an extreme athlete’s confidence in a certain situation (or self efficacy) plays a critical role in their ability to “take the leap” so to speak.

This past weekend, Felix Baumgartner took the plunge from a capsule, 24 miles above the surface of the Earth leaving many of us safe on the ground wondering “what the *%$# is he thinking?” It was a feat never attempted before, with the risk of death imminent.  So why do it?

‘No hand hold’ courtesy of flickrCC.net

A study in the Journal of Research in Personality compared levels of sensation seeking and self-efficacy in “extreme-risk” athletes (sports that could result in death or serious, incapacitating injury like rock climbing, stunt flying, high intensity skiing, and kayaking) to “high-risk” athletes as well as athletes participating in what would be considered “moderate-risk” activities.  Researchers employed both quantitative scales as well as interpersonal interviews and aimed to assess each athlete on a number of different psychological scales including:  sensation seeking, thrill and adventure seeking, death anxiety, repression-sensitization, general self-efficacy, and physical self-efficacy.

Results showed that the factor most associated with the inhibition involved in risk taking was self-efficacy.  Athletes who felt capable of performing an activity were more assured, approached the daunting task without anxiousness, showed little stress, and were able to focus on the task at hand rather than be distracted by their own thoughts of worry or concern.  In the interviews, extreme athletes made comments like, “So it is not that dangerous for me, because then I have a lot of control.  I have more control than most” and “For the average person it would be very dangerous, but my experience and technique put me beyond the average.” Even “Fearless Felix” himself pointed to his confidence as a key factor of his jump:

“But after a couple of seconds, I had that feeling I’m getting it under control. And I did. And that’s why I broke the speed of sound today.” (CNN.com)

So confidence is key.  But is it enough?  I may be confident in my ability to execute the steps in sky diving without error, but does that mean I’m still willing to jump out of a plane?  Is there something inherent in these “daredevils” that makes them take the chances they do?

Further research has tried to understand whether or not there are specific personality traits found in high/extreme-risk sports athletes.  By comparing athletes engaged in high-risk sports (skydiving, paragliding, ski jumpers, alpinists) with non-risk athletes (runners, swimmers, flat-water kayakers) and non-athletes, researchers found that high/extreme-risk athletes differed from the others on 3 personality traits: emotional stability, energy, conscientiousness.

Emotional Stability

The high risk athletes in the study were shown to be more capable of controlling their emotions.  Meaning, they are able to stay calm in high-intensity situations, they’re stable, they’re relaxed, and they deal with stress optimistically.

‘Grace and poise?’ courtesy of flickrCC.net

Energy

The high risk athletes were found to be more dynamic and energetic.  They’re brave, sociable, and communicative.  Researchers attributed these elevated levels of energy as a result of their need for calmness and control while executing the sport.  They must remain poised and stable while performing, and therefore have excess energy and communication left over for “their everyday lives.”

Conscientiousness

Finally, higher-risk athletes showed higher score in measures of conscientiousness.  Referring to reliability, accuracy, orderliness, and trustworthiness, researchers argued that those participating in extreme sports often must rely on others within their team.  Therefore, levels of reliability and trustworthiness must be high as the risks often involve a life or death situation.

Although the research shows that there are statistically significant differences in personality traits of extreme versus non-extreme athletes, I question whether the specific traits lead self-proclaimed “daredevils” to participate in extreme activities, or if its the participation that shapes the personality?  Do we need the “extreme” trait to get a thrill? Or can repeated base-and-bungee jumping build our confidence and turn even the most frightful of us fearless?

For now I can safely say that I am neither confident in my ability nor excited about jumping out of a capsule 24 miles above the earth’s surface.

Sources:

Kajtna, T., Tusak, M., Baric, R., and Burnik, S. (2004). Personality in High Risk Sports Athletes.  Journal of Kinesiology 36(1): 24-34.

Slanger, E. & Rudestam, K. (1997). Motivation and Disinhibition in High Risk Sports: Sensation Seeking and Self Efficacy. Journal of Research in Personality 31: 355-374.

David Ropeik October 18, 2012 at 11:56 am

Control (self-efficacy, to use the academic language) is a central psychological factor in risk perception. The more control we feel we have over any situation or choice, the less scary it is…even if we are only TELLING ourselves we have that control. Those who suffer trauma have fewer and less severe cases of PTSD in direct relation to how much control they felt during the trauma.
but this article overlooks another closely related risk perception factor…risk v. benefit. The greater the benefit, the less scary the risk. These folks feel great benefit from the activities they engage in. This dramatically lessens the fear as well.
See Slovic…The Perception of Risk…or Ropeik “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”

Ali Schumacher October 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm

David,
Thank you for your comment. I did come across the risk v. benefit stance in my reading as well. Very interesting stuff. It made me question, especially in the case of “Fearless Felix,” which benefit in particular is most salient. Did he jump just to grab that world record? Or were there deeper benefits? Many readings stressed the idea of “achievement” and that accomplishing the task was the main motivator for the athletes: to look back and say “Ah. I did that.” Pretty cool.

Margaret October 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Ali,
Interesting look at how personality, or activities can shape a person. Do you believe it is the action that causes the self efficacy?

Margaret

Ali Schumacher October 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm

It’s tough to say. One of the best ways to build self efficacy regarding a particular action is to perform the action successfully. I.e. Once you’ve survived your first experience with sky diving, it doesn’t seem so daunting the second time around. I would think that there is a sort of reciprocal cycle of self-efficacy. You need it to do an action, and completing that action reinforces it.

John Spevacek October 19, 2012 at 11:43 am

Control? Falling 24 miles and he thinks he is in control? He did what he could to minimize the risks, but that is far, far from control. (I know that you only quoted him, but I wish the reporter would have pressed him on this a little more.)

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