Don't try this at home. Or at a motel.
Not long ago, I found myself on the balcony of a motor lodge in South Carolina, four floors above a concrete sidewalk, pleading with a guy named Lenny not to jump. No, Lenny wasn't suicidal; he was preparing to leap from the ledge of my balcony to the balcony off his room, on the other side of a 4-foot chasm.
I was with a group of guys spending five days playing golf in Myrtle Beach. Lenny's roommate, Mike, had lost the key to their unit in the motel hot tub. While Mike dialed the front desk looking for a new key, Lenny remembered that the screen door on their balcony was unlocked. Getting into their room, then, was a simple matter of risking his life.
"Please don't do this," I said, but he ignored me. I couldn't watch. First I heard a gasp, then a rattle from the railing on his balcony, and finally Lenny's voice. "Tell Mike to come on over," he said, with a satisfied chuckle.
What is it about some men that compels them to take senseless, life-threatening risks? Would a woman pull such a stunt? Unless she was raised by the Flying Wallendas, probably not. According to University of Delaware psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, a leading authority on "sensation-seeking behavior," women are far less likely than men to risk their necks for the heck of it.
You can blame the male thirst for reckless living on chemistry, in part. A quarter-century ago, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health found that an enzyme in the brain called monoamine oxidase, or MAO, controls thrill-seeking behavior. The less MAO in your brain, the more likely you are to crave excitement and new experiences. As it turns out, men are more likely than women to have low levels of MAO.
Furthermore, if your dad liked to flirt with danger, you might be a risk taker too. In 1996, researchers in Israel and at NIMH identified a "thrill seeking" gene. People who scored high on tests designed to measure their love for wild living tended to have a slightly longer version of a gene responsible for dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical associated with emotions.
Combine funny-shaped dopamine receptors with low levels of MAO and you get guys who bungee jump over quicksand and go white-water rafting down Niagara Falls. There are probably other thrill-seeking genes yet to be discovered, said Zuckerman in a phone interview. But while your upbringing probably plays a role too, there are other good reasons to believe that thrill seeking is inherited: Identical twins tend to have equal degrees of gutsiness or timidity, says Zuckerman, even if they're raised by different parents.
Which might lead you to wonder why we evolved this way. Zuckerman, author of "Behavioral Expression and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking" (Cambridge, 1994), says that early in the development of humankind, it was the risk takers who explored new lands, hunted, and fought off predators and enemies. "All those things were important to the survival of the species," he says.
Psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, of McMaster University in Ottawa, have also pointed out that the male animal who is best at battling other males usually gets the girl. According to the laws of evolution, he who mates the most keeps his genes in play the longest.
But there's a dark side to all this risky business. While thrill seekers are more likely than the average Joe to ski and scuba dive, says Zuckerman, they're also more likely to rob banks and abuse drugs (many criminals and addicts have low levels of MAO, he notes). Zuckerman says the most common form of thrill seeking--driving recklessly and too fast--is far less exotic.
That may explain why men are twice as likely as women to be killed in auto accidents, according to government statistics. Men are also twice as likely to be killed in any kind of accident. According to experts, that's one reason why men, on average, die six years younger than women.
But before you go guffawing at the brazen fool down the street, do a little risk assessment of your own. Do you smoke? Get regular physical exams? Eat bacon-and-cheese burritos for breakfast? Adrenaline junkies who jump from balconies may be gambling with their lives, but anyone who ignores health warnings is taking a reckless leap of faith too.
Timothy Gower is a Massachusetts freelance writer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.