[Paleopsych] Sci Am: Lust for Danger

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Mon Nov 21 18:43:09 UTC 2005

Lust for Danger
October 2005 Issue
Scientific American

A ruinous night at the roulette table. A bungee jump into an abyss. Such 
actions defy human reason, but we still seek the thrill

By Klaus Manhart

The two empty cars sit idling, side by side. Jim and Buzz each get into their 
vehicles, close the doors and push their gas pedals to the floor, racing 
headlong toward the edge of a cliff. The canyon below comes into view--they 
should each leap from their driver's seats before their cars vault into the 
abyss, but the first one to bail out loses. At the last possible moment Jim 
throws open his door and dives out onto the ground. Buzz waits too long and 
plummets over the edge to certain death. In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean's 
character, Jim, symbolizes a turbulent generation of young people in the 1950s 
who went to extremes to find their own identities. Teenagers pushed risky 
behavior to the limit, senselessly putting their lives on the line. Yet this 
desire to court danger crosses every era, age group and social class. Reckless 
driving, for example, is common on highways around the world. Mountain climbers 
cling to sheer rock faces, skiers rush down steep slopes, married people have 
secret affairs, and partygoers drink to excess.

When danger calls, it seems, many are ready to respond. Today men and women of 
all ages are suddenly playing Texas Hold 'Em in homes, schools, offices and 
casinos, risking real money just for the thrill of it. In the late 1990s 
responsible parents who for years had safely put their savings into family bank 
accounts risked everything on grossly speculative high-tech stocks in hopes of 
cashing in on the dot-com boom. Thrill-seeking behavior is ubiquitous in other 
cultures, too: in Africa and South America, members of various tribes risk all 
their worldly possessions on games of chance.

Why do we have such a passion for dangerous situations, even when the outcome 
can literally be fatal? Because these activities give the brain a chemical 
high, and we like how it feels. And why would the brain reward us for risky 
behavior? Because taking chances helped early humans find food and mates, and 
those successful risk takers passed on their genes to us. Still, we certainly 
have the reasoning power to deny ourselves dangerous pleasures, yet so 
frequently we do not, and today psychologists are trying to determine why we 
can't seem to avoid the trouble we get ourselves into.

Adventurers Rule

The quest to explain why we lust for danger has ebbed and flowed over the 
years. But as our understanding has progressed, it has become evident that 
humans are driven to take risks--and the more that they do, the more likely 
they are to thrive. According to the accepted theory most recently advanced by 
biologist Jay Phelan of the University of California at Los Angeles and 
economist Terry Burnham, formerly of Harvard Business School, our penchant 
stems from prehistoric times, when the world was populated by two basic types 
of humans: those who nested and those who ventured forth. Nesters pretty much 
stayed in their caves, subsisting on plants and small animals in their 
immediate vicinity, remaining ever cautious. Adventurers roamed the land; 
although their daring exploits put them at greater risk of getting killed, they 
also discovered the tastier fruits and the more productive hunting grounds. At 
the same time, they gathered practical survival experience, becoming better 
equipped to withstand the rigors of nature. These more capable doers were 
frequently able to live long enough to have numerous children, successfully 
passing on their genes until their type eventually came to dominate our 

Our passion for taking risks is therefore a biological legacy, and a preference 
for such behavior continues to pervade society today. Of course, rational 
thinking in the 21st century can readily overcome such biological preference. 
Yet it is difficult to deny that the brain interprets risky behavior as a sign 
of strength. For example, psychologists have shown that young women, at gut 
level, are more attracted to "dangerous" men than to "safe" men. One reason is 
that despite obvious complications, the "outlaw" type may be more likely to 
come out on top should conflict with others arise. The "tough guy" may appear 
to offer women greater protection for physical survival.

This association is particularly evident in cultures that have changed little 
throughout the ages. In the 1960s and 1970s American cultural anthropologist 
Napoleon A. Chagnon of the University of California at Santa Barbara conducted 
a study of the Yanomamo Indians, who live along the Brazilian-Venezuelan 
border. He discovered that certain males lived with many more women than the 
rest, and every one of these men was known as a fearless warrior. These men 
also fathered far more offspring than their more timid tribesmen. Chagnon 
concluded that aggression-oriented genes win the upper hand in human 

Addicted to Dopamine

In the past decade, studies of brain chemicals and genes have supported 
Chagnon's supposition. Humans are driven to seek thrills, and for some, the 
more they find the more they want.

Such drives vary greatly among individuals. For certain people, even the 
minimum bet during a friendly game of poker can rattle the nerves. Others 
relish parachuting out of airplanes. The difference may be explained by each 
person's dopamine system--how much of this neurotransmitter people have and how 
readily it can transmit messages between neurons. For the biggest thrill 
seekers, dopamine brings about a very real state of intoxication; the more that 
is released by a thrill, the greater their rush.

Psychologists refer to such behavior as "sensation seeking," and a mix of 
physical and psychological factors are at work. People with a greater need to 
be energized by dopamine generally accept the physical, social or financial 
risks of sensation seeking as part of the game. But what causes the strong 
dopamine response? Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman of the University of Delaware 
maintains that the culprit is monoamine oxidase B. This enzyme is one of the 
chemicals that breaks down dopamine. The less monoamine oxidase B a person has, 
the more the dopamine flows, and the more likely he or she is to be a thrill 

Genes may play a part, too. In 1996 scientists discovered a gene called the D4 
dopamine receptor, quickly dubbed the novelty-seeking gene. It provides the 
code for a specific dopamine receptor and was thought to be responsible for 
minimizing the anxiety that normally accompanies risky behavior. People who 
have this receptor tend to go to excessive measures to get a rush. For these 
folks, commonplace situations that other people would find stimulating produce 
little more than boredom. Other experts are not convinced about this gene's 
power, however. Some 18 studies done since 1996 have examined the link between 
its occurrence and thrill-seeking behavior, but only half of them have found 
any quantifiable connection.

Invincible Me

To some psychologists, a person's readiness to give in to the temptation to 
seek thrills is an extreme case of a more general human trait--the tendency to 
estimate risk poorly and to overinflate anticipated performance. For example, 
according to psychological surveys, most people believe themselves to be 
healthier than the average person. They also feel that they are more astute in 
judging profit-making schemes. Experts refer to this phenomenon as the 
"optimistic bias." It occurs when danger is recognized but the level of risk is 
not accurately perceived. This skewed view would explain why a heavy smoker 
tends to estimate his cancer risk as less severe than a moderate smoker of the 
same age and gender does.

Underestimation also suppresses our fearful emotions. We simply assume that we 
will not be affected or at least that we are less susceptible to harm than 
others might be. As a result, we also become less willing to take precautions. 
Studies by Matthew Kreuter of the Saint Louis University School of Public 
Health and Victor J. Strecher of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor 
indicate that people often indulge in unhealthy or risky behavior despite being 
fully aware of the danger involved. Examples abound, such as the five skiers 
near Park City, Utah, this past winter who ignored warning signs and jumped 
fences to ski down unchecked terrain--to their deaths.

Humans in general are not very good at weighing risks. We are "probability 
blind." If a roulette wheel stops on red five times in a row, many onlookers 
will hold the false belief that on the next spin, chances are higher than 
normal that the wheel will hit black. Of course, every spin has the same 
mathematical probability of coming up red or black: 50-50. Yet casino gamblers 
by the thousands succumb to such fallacious thinking.

In much the same way, people are scared of plane crashes far more than car 
accidents, because an airline disaster is more dramatic, even though a much 
higher percentage of travelers die while riding on the road. We also roundly 
fear spectacular causes of death, such as murder, being struck by lightning or 
being bitten by a poisonous snake, even though the chance that we would fall 
prey to such an exotic demise is very small. Casino owners, lottery ticket 
sellers and insurance agents shamelessly exploit our miscalculations to sell 
that "winning" ticket or that "safety" policy against odds that are highly 

How is it, then, that the human brain, which can comprehend much more complex 
mathematical relationships, can make such fundamental errors in judgment? 
Evolution may provide an answer here as well. As the brain developed over 
millennia, events such as attacks from enemies and bites from snakes posed real 
dangers that became strongly imprinted in our neural circuitry. Our fears are 
therefore not completely unfounded, yet they do not really pertain to the 
modern world.

Still, the brain cannot easily adjust to such abstract probabilities. How many 
people who buy a lottery ticket are really considering the fact that they must 
rule out 14 million incorrect numerical combinations in choosing the exact 
winner? Instead we apply bogus, though seemingly time-tested, rules of thumb. 
As psychologists Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and the late Amos 
Tversky discovered in their research on statistical fallacies, we tend to 
believe that the more memorable an event, the more often it is likely to occur.

Fake It Instead

In dangerous situations, bad math, underestimation of risk and overestimation 
of our own strengths conspire to make us lose more than win, yet we willingly 
wade into them anyway. Mathematicians who study gambling have calculated that 
in the long term, players always come out on the losing end. Statistically, for 
example, regular roulette players win about 95 percent of their 
investment--that is, they lose 5 percent of their money. Sociologists often say 
that playing such games is the equivalent of paying a "stupidity tax."

In risky situations, our insufficient sense of probability enters into a 
dangerous liaison with dopamine intoxication. In assessing our chances, we 
cannot trust our intuitive, primitive brains to make decisions. Rather we must 
rely on an unemotional analysis of the actual factors that are involved.

Of course, that is easier said than done. For many people, reason simply takes 
a vacation when the chance for thrills arises. Deliberate precautions may 
therefore be the best way to counter temptation. One proven strategy 
recommended by psychologists is self-policing--setting limits before an 
activity begins. Gamblers, who run the risk of losing their shirts, can bring a 
predetermined amount of money with them into a casino or tell friends to escort 
them out, forcibly if needed, at a certain time. Greek hero Odysseus, who 
wanted to hear the seductive song of the Sirens, cheated death with such a 
strategy: he ordered his crew to lash him to their ship's mast and to fill 
their own ears with wax so they would not hear the song that would have tempted 
them to steer onto the rocks.

A second strategy is to substitute artificial danger for real danger. We do not 
have to abstain completely from the dopamine high or risk our health or wealth. 
Modern society offers many safe thrill-seeking situations: the exhilarating 
ride of a roller coaster, the fright of a horror film, the fast-paced intensity 
of a video game. These experiences drive up our dopamine levels and make us 
feel keenly alive. Our brains do not differentiate whether the rush is real or 
manufactured. We can live on the edge without risking going over it.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list