Why Take Risks?

Deirdre Fernand tries to understand why we enjoy extreme sports:

Social anthropologists tend to see extreme sports as rites of passage. As Mark van Vuyt, professor of psychology at the University of Kent, says: “In evolutionary terms it pays for young males to compete in excessive risk-taking. If they thought something was too risky and didn’t do it, they wouldn’t distinguish themselves and wouldn’t get female attention.”

In some societies, young men are sent off to kill a lion or spend weeks alone in the desert as an initiation rite. In the 1950s, David Attenborough brought back footage of the land divers of Vanuatu, who jump from tall wooden platforms with vines tied to their ankles to prove their manhood: bungee jumpers, essentially.

So much for young men. But where are the women? Playing it relatively safe, psychometric testing has shown. “Though individuals vary, few women seek out risks,” Mark van Vuyt says. “Their role has been to protect children and they err on the side of caution.” Perhaps risk-taking really is all about testosterone and atavism. As the science writer William Allman once wrote: “Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.”