FRIDAY, May 24 (HealthDay News) -- We've all seen them: the
surfers who race to the beach when a hurricane hits, the guy who
decides to ride out the storm in his overmatched boat, the tornado
chasers who fearlessly steer their cars alongside a scary-looking
Monday's devastating tornado in Moore, Okla., was the most
recent reminder that Mother Nature isn't something to gamble with
-- that even when the best safety precautions are taken, people can
still get hurt and die.
Yet, even now, when weather experts have the technology to
predict potentially dangerous natural disasters far enough in
advance for people to take shelter, some still sprint into the
melee while the rest of us hunker down in safety.
Storm chasers, thrill-seekers and their ilk don't fit a single
personality profile, mental health experts say. Although genetics
probably play a role, learned behavior and maturity are factors,
"They may be one of two types: people who have what we call impulsivity or those who are sensation seekers," said Rick Hoyle, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and associate director for the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.
An impulsive person tends not to think about the outcome of
their actions. "They're more in the moment," Hoyle said. "They
think, 'I see this novel, amazing thing in front of me and I have
to run toward it. I have to experience it.' "
Sensation seekers, on the other hand, are more likely to
understand the risk, but it's worth the high they get, said Hoyle,
who has conducted research on sensation-seeking behavior.
"Exposure to a novelty -- what we call stimuli high in sensation value, like an incoming tornado -- tends to activate the reward centers in the brains of people who are high in sensation-seeking behaviors," he said. "In other words, they get the same high from these events that you and I would get from eating something that really tastes good or being with someone we really want to be with."
High sensation-seekers are significantly more likely to use
drugs and alcohol too, he added.
"The combination of the two -- impulsivity and sensation-seeking -- in one person is particularly likely to lead them into harm's way," Hoyle said.
Telling risk-takers that the weather they're about to challenge
is dangerous usually won't convince them to come back inside, Hoyle
added. "The more you portray it as risky and edgy, the more
appealing it might be," he said. "It's an information processing
Some sensation-seekers may take greater and greater risks over
time, said psychiatrist Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg, director of the
Cognitive Behavior Therapy Clinic at the University of California,
Los Angeles. "It's called habituation. In order to achieve the same
level of satisfaction they need more and more stimuli," he said.
"Their need for excitement and arousal may increase gradually over
time and they may need to seek thrills of a bigger kind."
A person might also brave a fierce storm because it brings
attention, said Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and
neuroscience at Duke who has collaborated with Hoyle on
"Adolescents have stronger responses to rewards, particularly if an action has a social reward," Huettel said. "They may not see their behavior as risky because it has a potential reward -- maybe it will improve their social status or it's going to help them get the girl."
And don't assume your typical risk-taker is the extreme athlete
or the guy with the tattoos and piercings. There's a lot of
evidence now suggesting that more than one personality type is
attracted to impulsive, thrill-seeking behaviors, Huettel said.
"The person who decides on a whim to jump off a sea cliff is not the same as the guy who chooses a risky career like firefighting," Huettel said. "And people who tend to take high-risk actions recreationally aren't necessarily as likely to do that with their investments, for example."
Although fearlessness in the face of nature's wrath likely has a
genetic component, there are social forces at play too, said Dr.
Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
"What is interesting is that one of the most well-studied and researched storms was Hurricane Katrina," Bea said. "Stanford and Princeton researchers looked at groups of residents who rode the storm out, residents who left, emergency workers who came in to help."
Bea said people who weather big storms instead of escaping to
safety may not be in the sensation-seeking category at all. Perhaps
they have a lack of financial and social support, or they just
don't want to leave their communities.
"They embody the American working class -- independent individuals," he said. "People who don't want to leave their homes, who want to stay close to neighbors and friends because they have a sense of obligation, like a ship's captain."
For more on thrill-seeking behavior, visit the
American Psychological Association.
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