Everything is sweetened by risk," observes a 19th Century treatise on the fear of dying.
Well, perhaps not everything. The pleasures of sunbathing, for example, do not increase with the realization that the sun's ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer.
But risk, in other forms, seems to have partakers who are more avid than others--people who get a certain charge out of performing acts that pose physical, social or financial peril. In itself, risk is not the prime motivation for behavior that the more timid among us might deem as crazy, according to psychologists. Rock climbers and tightrope walkers don't harbor a secret death wish; venture capitalists don't invest in start-up businesses because the majority of enterprises fail within the first five years; struggling artists don't persist because their works are ignored by critics. Yet, because of the lurking potential for failure and even disaster, most of us steer clear of such pursuits.
"I don't think anybody engages in risk taking just for the sake of it," says Louis J. West, UCLA professor of psychiatry. "What we describe as 'risky' is a value judgment placed on somebody else's behavior."
Psychologists and other researchers note that people vary greatly in their tolerance for life's "sweetener" and the uncertainty that, by definition, risk carries. Those who have a powerful hunger for variety and intensity of experience do have fears, says University of Delaware psychologist Marvin Zuckerman. But they appraise risks differently than people who are strongly drawn to the predictable and who receive ample stimulation from familiar surroundings and routine activities.
"The attitude of the high-sensation seekers," Zuckerman wrote in an article published in 1988, "seems to be: 'Yes, it's risky, but everything will turn out fine for me, and I will feel good.' The attitude of the low-sensation seeker is: 'Everything bad that can happen will happen, and I will be devastated.' "
Evidence from several lines of research suggests that some of those who cross to the "wild side" of the fuzzy boundary of conventional behavior may have an inherited biochemical predisposition that makes them more likely to take risks. Moreover, the further one's behavior moves him or her away from that boundary, according to emerging theories, the closer he moves to the clinical domain of manic-depressive illness, a biochemically-based disorder characterized by marked swings between extreme elation and deep melancholy. Finally, there are indications that the willingness to take risks is a critical psychological link between the need for exhilarating physical or mental experiences and the drive to create.
Whatever the basis for risk taking, determining why one individual will spend a Sunday afternoons kayaking in the seething rapids of a river while another person regularly opts for a lawn chair and the newspaper may say much about who we are as individuals.
Using scales that measure, for example, "sensation seeking," "thrill seeking," "monotony avoidance" and "constraint," researchers have found that the propensity to engage in physically or socially risky acts is deeply--perhaps biochemically--ingrained in one's personality and may even be inherited. Zuckerman has spent 25 years studying "sensation seekers," using a composite scale that measures the "need for varied, novel and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks." He says some forms of mania resemble "sensation-seeking behavior that is out of control." Even when their disorder abates, manic depressives rate high in sensation seeking, according to Zuckerman's research. Other studies have found that the brains of people who suffer bouts of mania are biologically similar to those of normal sensation seekers.
In sensation seekers, Zuckerman suggests, fluctuations in the distribution of chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, and other compounds may alter the brain's regulatory mechanisms. One consequence, he says, may be that higher levels of stimulation are needed just to trigger the brain's internal reward system. That may account for the reason that high-sensation seekers run inordinately high risks of using cocaine or other stimulant drugs.
Also implicated in sensation seeking--particularly in males who seek stimulation through drinking, partying, gambling and sexual variety--are high levels of male sex hormones, Zuckerman says. The hormones' suspected influence may account for the greater prevalence of sensation seeking among males, especially adolescents and young adults.