Inside the mind of a thrill seeker

A scientific look at those, like racers, who seek out risky/dangerous situations.

What makes some of us adrenaline junkies who love nothing more than being scared out of our minds or driving at high speeds, while others feel sick at the mere thought of an amusement ride? Dr Lisa Dorn explains how thrill seeking plays a part in our everyday lives.

The scariest ride in the world? That's a difficult one. It might be the Talocan, situated in Germany's Phantasialand, which features water jets and exploding flames and spins visitors around in circles before climaxing by flipping upside down and leaving people staring head first into a deep chasm.

Or it might be the SCAD Tower at Danish theme park Tivoli. Essentially, it's not really a ride - just a free fall drop from a height of 100ft into a small net with no surrounding or enclosed protection. "I'm gonna die!" screams one jumper in this video clip. It looks pretty brutal. Each person is just unclipped from a safety harness and allowed to plunge directly vertically into the net.

Those of you reading this will probably be divided into two camps. One set will have already abandoned this post and diverted their browser to book flights to Denmark and tickets for the Tivoli. They can't wait to get out there and have a go at that!

Why we seek it

The other set will be experiencing sweaty palms, a slightly panicky feeling and a sensation of nausea: why on earth would anyone in their right mind put themselves through something so terrifying? For this group, it's beyond comprehension that some individuals would deliberately want to do this to themselves.

If the example of choosing to try one of the most frightening rides in the world is an extreme one, the same thought can be applied to more commonplace scenarios. Halloween for example, while some will have fully embraced the opportunity to get into the nightmarish spirit of the season by dressing up, hosting parties and scaring themselves and others, there are those who will have totally kept away from it all and just wanted the whole thing to end.

Some of us love horror movies; some of us can't even get past the opening titles before switching over. Some of us will think nothing of booking a spontaneous holiday at the last minute and jumping on a plane; that prospect fills others with dread because they prefer to plan ahead and carefully analyse all parts of the process.

The numbness of fear, yet a sense of safety

"Not everyone enjoys being afraid and I don't think it's a stretch to say that no one wants to experience a truly life-threatening situation. But there are those of us who really enjoy the experience," Dr Margee Kerr, a USA sociologist who studies fear, discusses in this article published by The Atlantic. "To really enjoy a scary situation we have to know we're in a safe environment."

Putting oneself in that scary situation for entertainment and amusement is a personal choice and relatively harmless. However, there is potential danger when thrill seekers bring their desire for an adrenaline rush into everyday life. Driving a vehicle is an obvious cause for concern here.

Dr Lisa Dorn has devoted her distinguished career to studying and understanding driver behaviour. A Reader in Driver Behaviour at Cranfield University and Director of the Driving Research Group, she is also Research Director for DriverMetrics, a Cranfield spin-out company. Dr Dorn also works with insurance company ingenie to assist in the research and development of black box technology. She's therefore well placed to discuss the phenomenon of thrill seeking and how that can manifest itself in an individual's driving performance.

Driver behavior

"A thrill seeker is someone who seeks varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and has a willingness to take risks for the sake of experiencing these sensations," she says. "Many studies have shown that this component of personality is related to taking various risks in pursuing dangerous sports and leading a risky lifestyle.

"For drivers, high sensation seeking is related to traffic accidents, traffic offences, driving while under the influence, speeding, not wearing seatbelts, illegal overtaking and a variety of other unsafe driving behaviours."

Just as one person will clamber onto a rollercoaster enthusiastically while another shrinks away and runs a mile from it, so one motorist will be unable to resist the opportunity to drive fast as the next driver stays within the speed limit. Not everyone possesses thrill seeking tendencies, as Dr Dorn explains. You can test your own habits by taking ingenie's interactive thrill seeker quiz by clicking here

"There are strong individual differences in thrill seeking - some drivers do not exhibit this trait behind the wheel at all. Thrill seeking tendencies mean that the driver has an urge to increase their excitement levels – i.e. get an adrenaline rush - by taking risks. Personality factors may influence the way a driver behaves behind the wheel.

Personality influencing driving style?

"Is riskiness a personality trait? There are many personality characteristics that may influence driving style but one of the main ones is your thrill seeking tendencies. As young males tend to have stronger sensation seeking characteristics and they are also more likely to be involved in crashes, many studies have shown a link between increased risk taking amongst young male drivers."

There is a physical explanation for the tendency referred to as 'sensation seeking'. According to Dr Dorn, it's related to stronger electrodermal (sweating, in other words) and heart-rate responses, and cortical evoked potential arousal - stronger brain 'spikes' in response to stimulating material - when sensation seekers are provided with stimuli that are novel and intense, and when the stimulus significance is important.

This means high sensation seekers tend to provide a stronger physiological response than low sensation seekers to novel stimuli. "Research on the general characteristic of sensation seeking has discovered that some individuals have a greater need for stimulation from the environment than others," she confirms.

Are thrill seeking, risk taking drivers born or made? 

It's a fascinating question.

"Differences between psychophysiological responses of high and low sensation seekers are thought to be due to different or evolved biological strategies for processing novel or intense stimulation," asserts Dr Dorn. "In other words, sensation seekers may be wired for seeking stimulation from birth.

"Are fast and slow drivers born or made? It's likely to be a combination of 'nature' - born with the predisposition to seek stimulation - and 'nurture' with the roles of parents and peers being influential. But all behaviour can be modified and corrected - no matter how well ingrained! The determining factor is motivation to change it."

Taking it too far

However, while fast drivers can change their behaviour, slower drivers can change too. "Typically, speed increases as drivers become more confident in their driving skills in the first few weeks of driving post-licence," comments Dr Dorn. "Sadly, this is the time when most novice drivers are involved in crashes."

Potentially fatal incidents such as crashes can clearly demonstrate when the urge for thrills and adrenaline has gone too far. If you love to be spooked, or scared, or have your heart thumping, indulge this side of your character in a safe environment and let the pros put it all on the line.

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