One definition of high-risk sports is ‘activities that imply a possibility of injury or death, and in order to minimize the risks associated with the sport, specialized equipment is often needed’.
A number of extreme sports have become increasingly popular and accepted by the general population of Western societies. In 1979, Zuckerman defined sensation seeking as:
“The need for varied, novel and complex sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience.”
There has been a tendency to view all extreme sports participants as thrill seekers, but when we investigate it more closely, two types of risk-takers appear:
- The ones who deliberately take risks and put themselves in situations where failures are likely to be fatal
- The ones who are more precautionary so that they minimize the risks of their sport
A precautionary approach is associated with fewer accidents, which means that danger in itself does not lead to accidents. Therefore, people who do extreme sports are not all deliberate risk-takers. It is more likely that people seek risks to achieve a sense of control – so it is not the risk itself that is attractive.
Kupciw & MacGregor (2012) also propose that risk-taking behaviors are the fundamental driving force between discoveries and scientific development, and therefore, risk-taking behavior is considered to exist in our DNA.
A new study by Castanier and colleagues (2013) used a typological approach to personality and risk-taking behaviors, e.g. mountaineering, rock climbing, and skydiving.
A typological approach assumes that different personality types are associated with specific behaviors (e.g., risk-taking). If you need to read up on personality types, go to this page for a brief description.
Earlier, only few studies have focused on socially accepted extreme sports. In short, they found that people low in conscientiousness combined with high extraversion and/or high in neuroticism (i.e., impulsive, hedonistic) were more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors (read more about the traits here).
Castanier and colleagues (2013) further state that a positive relationship between extraversion and high-risk health behaviors has been found in a number of studies.
The positive emotions that extraverts tend to experience may increase the likelihood of risk-taking behaviors as extraverts may use this behavior as a way to achieve a high degree of arousal. Indeed, extraverts are found to engage in risky behaviors as a way to enhance positive emotions (Cooper et al., 2000).
Extraversion may be lead to risk-taking behaviors when people are impulsive and hedonists (i.e., seeking pleasure), and may hinder these behaviors if people are insecure. For this reason, extraversion may lead to increases and decreases of risk-taking behaviors, which illustrates the complexity of traits.
People high in neuroticism may use high-risk sports as a way of regulating emotions. The increased adrenalin linked to extreme sports, and the various bodily sensations may reduce negative emotions temporarily.
The trait that most strongly predicts risk-taking behaviors is conscientiousness. High conscientiousness predicts a low level of risk-taking behaviors. This is because this trait implies aspects such as competence, dutifulness, achievement striving, and self-discipline, that go hand in hand with health-protective behaviors (in contrast to risk-taking behaviors) and well-being.
On the contrary, low levels of conscientiousness imply: Carelessness, lack of self-control, and impulsivity. Low self-control and impulsivity may play an important role in this context.
However, people who are low in conscientiousness do not always engage in risk-taking behaviors, especially not when they score low on extraversion and neuroticism at the same time.