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Photo: Hauggen

Reannon Muth wonders if the modern daredevil has become obsolete.

LONG BEFORE MY first attempt at scaling the side of a mountain, I scaled the side of my parents’ two-story house.

Using my bedspread as a make-shift rope, I kicked out my bedroom window and prepared to swing Tarzan-style down to the ground 50 feet below. I was seven.

Luckily, my father caught me dangling from the window-ledge just in time to spare a trip to the ER. But not in time to spare me from a life-long addiction to thrills and daring adventures. That, apparently, had been hard-wired into my brain since birth.

According to research conducted by University of Delaware professor Marvin Zuckerman, not only is my passion for living on the edge a trait of a risk-taking personality type, it’s also hereditary. I’m a risk-taker – or high sensation-seeker – a label Zuckerman attributes to anyone who craves “novel, intense and complex sensations and experiences” and is willing to engage in risky behavior in order to achieve them.

In modern society, daredevils are usually considered oddballs or worse, adrenaline junkies with a death wish.

And while that often involves physical risks, not everyone needs to be a sky-diving instructor in order to consider herself a risk-taker. According to Zuckerman, the risk-taking trait can manifest itself in other behaviors. Someone who enjoys exploring a foreign city without a map, for example, would be considered an “Experience-seeking” risk-taker. And those easily bored by routine and who frequently move or switch jobs are called “Boredom Susceptibility” risk-takers.

Although there might be a little Evel Knievel lurking in your entrepreneurial next-door neighbor, it’s usually the climber on Everest or the crocodile hunter that receive the attention. And it’s often negative. In modern society, daredevils are usually considered oddballs or worse, adrenaline junkies with a death wish. But it wasn’t always like that.

Risk-Takers of Yesteryear

Photo: icyFrance

As the theory goes, the risk-takers of yore were not only valued members of a tribe, but absolutely vital to humankind’s survival.

While the play-it-safers stuck close to their berry patches, their more adventurous counterparts risked life and limb hunting the saber-tooth tiger or investigating a newly-discovered cave.

Not surprisingly, many a risk-taking caveman didn’t survive that elephant tusk to the back or drink from that contaminated watering-hole. But as psychologist Michael Aptor, author of the book “Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement”, pointed out in the Psychology Today article, Risk, “it’s better for one person to eat a poisonous fruit than for everybody.” It was because of these early risk-takers that our species was able to survive.

But you wouldn’t know it from people’s reactions today. Up until recently, the theory was that human beings main motivation in life was tension-avoidance, so those adventurists who actively sought it were deemed impaired and even crazy. Some researchers not only consider the risk-taking personality “abnormal”, but theorize that it’s becoming obsolete.

They have a point. In the modern world, where no waters are left uncharted or lands undiscovered, there just isn’t a need in society for the girl gutsy enough to dive for oysters in shark-infested water.

Safety Precautions Everywhere

Michael Alvear, in the Salon article Risky Business, wrote: “You can’t swing a helmeted cat without hitting a mandated safety precaution.” And although those helmet laws and health inspections have made the modern world safer, they’ve also sapped it of the very thing that makes life interesting: it’s wild unpredictability.

And this is bad news for those programmed to crave adventure. Because as science has shown, a thirst for novelty is in the risk-taker’s blood. While neuroscientists have yet to agree which gene is responsible for why some prefer paint-balling to painting, a study from Vanderbilt University in Nashville found that those who crave an element of danger do so because their brains have trouble regulating dopamine.

Science has shown, a thirst for novelty is in the risk-taker’s blood.

Dopamine is the brain’s “happy juice”. It’s the chemical you can thank for that blissful feeling you experience while eating that chocolate sundae or sharing a romantic evening with a lover. And in the brain of a high-sensation seeker (who is believed to have fewer of a dopamine-blocking enzyme), it’s overflowing. Which is why the risk-taker may feel bizarrely elated at the prospect of jumping off a cliff, whereas the average person feels merely frightened and stressed.

Not that the average person doesn’t enjoy the occasional weekend ski-trip. On a scale of sensation-seeking tendencies, with the couch potato on one end and the base jumper on the other, most people fall somewhere in between. And that’s unlikely to change, no matter how many safety nets or seat-belts society cocoons itself in.

Need for Speed

Walking into the unknown / Photo: Jsome1

But adrenaline junkies (those who struggle to cope with the mundane existence of every-day life) are a different breed. And as evolution has demonstrated, over time, when a trait ceases to be advantageous, it ceases to exist.

So with an intense desire for adventure literally pumping through their veins and with no spear-throwing tribesman in sight, what’s a modern daredevil to do?

Well, as the article “Risk” and the spike in popularity of adventure tourism would suggest, when you can’t find danger, you create it. And that’s why we find grannies giddily signing up for white-water rafting in Costa Rica or college students heading to orphanages in New Delhi for voluntourism gigs.

Last weekend, 20 years since that day on my window-ledge, I stood on a different sort of ledge, the kind 200 feet above ground and attached to a cliff on the border of a Guatemalan jungle. As I readied myself to zip-line across the tree tops, I prayed that metal and cable would prove studier than the bedspread. I was nervous. But perhaps not unsurprisingly, exhilarated, too.

Maybe we risk-takers are a dying breed. But you can be sure that if we do all die out, we’ll be going out in style: para-gliding, free-falling and bungeeing our way into extinction.

Do you think true risk-taking is still possible in our society? What are some of the risks you have taken? Share them below.

Culture + Religion


About The Author

Reannon Muth

Reannon Muth is a part-time writer and full-time travel addict. Over the last decade, she's backpacked through Asia and Central America and lived in five countries, in Disney World and on a cruise ship. Some of her talents include being able to fall asleep anywhere and eat almost anything. She currently lives in Las Vegas.You can read about all of her adventures (abroad and at home) on her blog, Taken by the Wind.

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  • Asa

    Speaking of Americans, I definitely think risk-taking is a dying breed. I’m not talking about thrill sports – I think there’s still a fair amount of that going on – but I see less people wanting to take risks like “having a gap year on their resume” or “not saving for retirement” or “going without health insurance”. I think many people, out of a desire for perceived security, forgo many large activities, like taking a large around-the-world trip or starting a business that they’re really passionate about. I think it’s a shame. Yes, accidents happen, disasters strike, and to be moderately prepared for the worst is prudent. But from what I’ve experienced, many tend to go overboard with worries about the worst-case-scenario. Especially spending a lot of money on insurance or planning that in the end, often ends up either not being necessary or the insurance doesn’t end up paying off when needed.

  • Abbie

    “Boredom Susceptibility” risk-taker? That’s me!

  • joshua johnson

    love this article.
    we would have been great friends as kids!
    I don’t think of things in terms of risk…I asses in Factors of Adventure. And ramping up the adventure gives me the pleasant rush that would possibly be described by so many sky divers.

  • Troy Pattee

    What an excellent and timely post, Reannon! I was in Guatemala last month and we hiked Pacaya just days before the latest eruption. It has been disconcerting to read the comments by the flood of naysayers regarding the rescue of Abby Sunderland and her aborted around-the-world solo sailing attempt. Without the adventurers and risk-takers of the world we would all be living in grass huts and eating porridge. Keep on living!

  • Reannon

    @ Troy – Grass huts and porridge! Ha.

    It’d be interesting to know how the naysayers do on the sensation seeking scale. If you want to see how much of a risk-taker you are, take Zuckerman’s risk-assessment test. It only takes about five minutes…

    But I don’t understand what any of the fuss is about either. Out of all the risky situations a teenger can find herself in, sailing around the world is pretty low on the list. Most risk-taking teens put themselves in far greater danger through reckless driving, unprotected sex, drugs, binge drinking, crime, etc.

  • bobby c

    Well said, Reannon!

    Asa – I couldn’t agree more with your point about the modern American risktaker. It’s not just the bungee jumper who is a risk taker. It’s also the person who had the crazy idea to put her life savings into opening a restaurant that only serves PBJ!

  • Stacey

    This post was the most beautiful thing to read first thing this morning! I agree in every way!

  • Kev Coleman

    Reannon, I could not have said it any better if I tried.

    You keep enjoying life.

    As a Pagan I follow the One Law: ‘If it harms no one and no thing do what thy will’
    Seems like the rest of the world has forgotten their roots.

  • Angela

    Right on! We need to bring back the risk taking race.

  • Logan

    I am 14 and i crave adrenaline rushes i am a huge risk taker and it has never led me in the wrong direction i mean maybe a few trips to the ER every once in a while but just to get out and try the same thing that sent you to the ER in the first place and to actually get it makes it alllll worth it:)

  • Dfkalfdksfj


  • Anon.

    that’s true.

  • Diana

    Absolutely true!  I’m quite a risk taker myself and currently in college. While I find the academics really interesting and fun, life on campus seems incredibly dull and confining, which is why I’m taking next fall off to go trekking in Bhutan, haha!
    And yes, some people might think I’m crazy.

  • jrdaniel

    It’s unfortunate how some people forsake adventure for security and safety. 
    I’m a 21-year-old student and risk is something I live with and seek out regularly. Some friends consider me crazy but I wouldn’t live life any other way. I am a volunteer firefighter and EMT and I have come to accept the risk that at any moment I can be called to an emergency where I could lose my life. In fact, I’ve had two extremely close calls where I was only a breathe away from death. 
    For recreation, I find myself always seeking the next thrill. I am an avid rock climber always looking for a new challenge and dangers. One of the most recent risks I took was guiding a trip down a river with Class 3+ rapids that neither my crew or I had ever ran or scouted before. Crazy, maybe, but I had the skills and training that made me feel as if I could do it without killing myself or crew. We accepted the risk of injury or death but faced it with smiles. The other most recent thrill seeking activity I did was went skydiving. I surprised my family by coming home randomly and the first thing my brother said was let’s go skydiving. Twenty minutes later, we were at the drop zone. I thought this would be a huge thrill but I didn’t feel the usual pump of adrenaline associated with me doing something risky. I think this seems from my familiarity with danger and exposure but I cannot be sure. It was an absolute blast and I think I would like to get certified with the intent to begin base jumping but that will come later down the road.


    High, I’m Justin from Italy 26.  Just wanted to say that risk taking isn’t only about adrenalin junkies or adventurous people. 

    Been a military brat ever since I was born and been traveling for too long in my lifetime.

    I do martial arts, teach women’s self defense courses, rollerblade, snowboard, skate and also lately Par Kur.  Can’t wait to go base jumping ;)

    I went on a family vacation 3 years ago to Amsterdam, it was the first time I ever smoked marijuana.  I thought I was going to get mugged being stoned and out late at night at 3:30AM  and not knowing a lick of the language or customs, but I didn’t.  Amsterdam as I found out is a real laid back place,  that being a big enough risk for me already( because I never drink or do anything like that while traveling).
    I noticed that the more relaxed you are mentally the more prone you are to understanding more about the places you visit. 

    Even if you don’t know the language try talking with someone you meet in a locale or something and try to get a message across just as long as you see the other person has patience to try and understand what your saying i.e. use lots of hand gestures and facial expressions, always permitting it doesn’t seem offense he he :)

    Oh! If your a woman it’s obvious, watch out for number one (yourself).  As traveling for women is a bit more difficult considering you have to look out for sexual predators too.  Best bet, as soon as you land in your new country or place of visit look for nearest store or something to get a small bit of personal defense items i.e. pepper spray, small pocket knife, even hair spray, just be creative and keep it on your person at all times. 

    Not in your bag or in your luggage!  On your person pocket, side pocket and even hide it in your hand so as not to be visible when passing  in and around scary places or suspicious places.  Just keep calm, don’t be afraid be AWARE AND ATTENTIVE TO DETAILS. (SPOKEN FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE) PEACE LOL ….

  • Callum87

    I think we are forgetting that there are distinct differences in risks’ character. In certain areas of high adrenalin such as sky diving, we accept the fact that we  face potential danger, but the possibility of that danger ever becoming actual reality is so low that it’s thought of (quite consciously) as a controlled risk. 
    I ask you, is everyday adventure, copied out by thousands and written a thousand times, structured and practiced, really a risk as risk knows it? A risk for me, I dare say, involves serious uncertainty and stupidity only that of a drunkard going 100mph on stilts could communicate. I don’t know…  silly things like: Russian Roulette, walking into the wild without a map or food, or even as painful as pouring your heart out in poetry form over a callous woman in a busy town centre. I once sought excitement on the streets, there are many risks to be had there, in the gutter. The hardest part is staying out of prison.

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