Unraveling The Titan Tragedy And The Human Fascination With Risk
Psychological research suggests that the allure of risky situations stems from the intricate interplay of adrenaline, curiosity, and the relentless pursuit of new experiences.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 2, 2023
In a tragic turn of events, it was confirmed on June 23 that the five people onboard Titan, the deep-sea tourist submersible operated by OceanGate Expeditions, lost their lives following a catastrophic implosion. We lost contact with the submersible on June 18, the day of its expedition to the Titanic shipwreck, from where it was to return the very same day.
Since the story broke, it is widely understood that this was a disaster waiting to happen, owing to OceanGate's dismissive attitude toward getting certified and concerns over the build quality of the submersible. OceanGate Expeditions first began taking tourists to the ruins of the Titanic back in 2021.
This begs the question: what drives some individuals to willingly embrace risk and sign up for experiences that hold the potential for devastating outcomes?
Here are two research findings that can help us understand our complicated relationship with dangerous novel experiences.
#1. Some of us may be born with a hunger for dangerous situations
A 2013 study found that people who are drawn to extreme sports like skiing and snowboarding may process dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and reward, differently from the rest of the population. The study made this discovery by looking at a variant of a specific dopamine receptor (DRD4, or the "adventure gene") that is associated with novelty-seeking.
This tells us that there may be a genetic variant in people who seek the thrill of extreme, novel situations that is responsible for risk-seeking behavior.
A 2021 paper published in Nature Human Behavior, which gathered data from close to 13,000 participants, seems to echo these findings. The study discovered that people who engaged in more risky behaviors had less brain tissue in specific centers of the brain that are involved in emotions, rewards, and decision-making, possibly due to genetic variations.
However, while these studies suggest that a genetic link to seeking out dangerous situations exists, physiology cannot be the only explanation. In fact, there is evidence that culture also plays a role in shaping our ideas of danger and how we respond to it — which brings us to the next point:
#2. Social media may amplify FOMO, which can make participating in risky situations alluring
Social media platforms allow us to see what others are doing in real-time, and this can create a sense of pressure to keep up and not miss out on what seem like experiences of a lifetime.
A 2013 study found that social media use was positively associated with FOMO (or the fear of missing out) and that FOMO could lead to less happiness and life satisfaction in social media users. These negative consequences of feeling left out can cause people to behave or act in ways that can be considered risky.
Consider, for instance, the case of the Chinese social media influencer who recently passed away at a weight-loss boot camp she joined to serve as an inspiration to her followers. Although the exact cause of her death has not been revealed, we know she was trying to lose more than half of her body weight in a rigorous training and diet regimen.
This tragic incident highlights the potential dangers of social media and the pressure it can create in our society to conform to certain standards or participate in risky behaviors.
When considering taking part in risky behaviors, remember that your safety and well-being should always come first. The popularity of or demand for a risky activity doesn't guarantee that it is safe or worth it. If you have a tendency to seek out dangerous situations, be mindful of this, and always conduct an independent assessment of the risks versus the rewards of taking part in activities that may lie outside your zone of comfort.