The Psychology of Skydiving

Why do risk takers like Felix Baumgartner do what they do?
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Why do risk takers like Felix Baumgartner do what they do?

By the time you have read this, daredevil Felix Baumgartner will have likely started ascending in a balloon to 23 miles above New Mexico, with the intention of parachuting home. Ten minutes later, he will have either accomplished the highest jump in history, free-falling through the sound barrier in the process -- or he'll be dead. Certainly the hope is that Felix comes out of his decision OK. But it's still hard not to wonder: why do this?

The research on risk-taking is pretty broad; studies exist on various motivations to undertake extreme sports, to enlist in particularly dangerous types of soldiering, to eat weird food. Yet, all that data doesn't appear to have told us much. We don't know what's really going on in people's heads when they decide that bungee-jumping isn't enough, they really need to BASE jump. (Warning: that link is upsetting.)

We only know, more or less, what risk-takers think they get out of it, and that's pretty intuitive: adrenaline, ego boosts, sometimes money.

But what about those of us who are gawking at events like today's space-edge parachute dive?

That we know a surprising amount about, and it's encouraging—we like watching risky stuff, but we prefer risks with a purpose. A study by psychologist G. William Farthing, published by the University of Maine, noted that men who do risky things don't generally impress anyone, until they take those risks for altruistic reasons. At which point, people want to marry them.

Farthing's 2005 study attempted to answer the admirably straight-forward question of why young men drive badly, try to leap from their mom's roof to the backyard pool, or otherwise challenge Isaac Newton to duels, for years on end, continually. The answer, of course, is they are trying to get women (or other young men in some percentage of cases, one assumes) to notice.

But they don't, Farthing found. Or they do notice, but don't want to have any further  relationship, other than perhaps driving them to the hospital.

In some cases, however, doing something crazy caused observers to want to get to know the hero better. What got a person to move from simply observing an act of recklessness to wanting to have a drink, and perhaps a baby, with the hero? Farthing found that doing something insane made you interesting, but doing something insane on behalf of someone else made you far, far more interesting.

Both heroic and non-heroic risk takers were perceived as more brave, athletic, physically fit, impulsive, attention-seeking, and foolish, and less emotionally stable and self-controlled, compared to risk avoiders. But only heroic risk takers were perceived as more altruistic, agreeable, conscientious, and sexy than risk avoiders.

The difference between heroic and non-heroic was whether the action was merely bold or has some sort of charitable aspect. Dogsledding across the Alaskan wilderness through a storm is impressive and brave, but it's not necessarily heroic. Dogsledding through the Alaskan wilderness through a storm to deliver life-saving medicine? Apparently that's the difference between everyone thinking you're merely impressive, and them thinking you are marriage material.

With the outcome of Baumgartner's jump still unknown, and the consequences of failure so serious, it would be inappropriate to speculate as to where he falls on that brave vs heroic scale. Wherever he lands, we hope it's softly.

UPDATE, Oct. 15: After several postponements due to high winds, Baumgartner completed his jump on Sunday, Oct. 14, falling at 832 mph for over four minutes before landing safely in the New Mexico desert.