People Need Risk, Says Writer Ralph Keyes, but Taking a Flying Leap Isn't for Everyone

updated 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/13/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Four years ago, comfortably settled in a white stucco house outside Philadelphia with his wife, Muriel, and son David, now 5, writer Ralph Keyes (rhymes with eyes) found himself wondering if his life wasn't too settled. As a living relic of the baby boom, he had charted his contemporaries' emergence into adulthood through three books, including Is There Life After High School? in 1976. Now he had a feeling of restlessness—one he believed others of his generation were sharing. "People were talking the way I felt," he says, "wanting to take more risks." But why? And what constituted a risk in the first place? To find out Keyes began interviewing people he considered daredevils and discovered they didn't think of themselves as risk takers at all. Puzzled, he interviewed more than 500 people, including nuns, students, Marines, go-go dancers, policemen, drug dealers and social workers. From his labors came Chancing It: Why We Take Risks (Little, Brown, $15.95), published just after his 40th birthday this winter. He discussed his findings with reporter Lee Powell.

Why is the idea of taking risks so appealing to us?

I think we're built to take risks. For 99 percent of human existence, our daily companions were danger and fear. One research physician suggests that although physical risks have gradually diminished in man's daily life, the need for action and risk is still in our genetic makeup.

If that is so, why does almost everyone deny being a risk taker?

What seems like a risk to one person may not be scary to someone else. Most of us don't do what we're afraid to do, and when we see others doing those things, it's hard to imagine it doesn't scare them. We tend to define risks as the chances we don't take. Eventually I came to a basic definition of risk that covers everyone: an act involving fear of great loss.

Are all risks alike?

I found two separate kinds of risks. The first involves activities that are exciting, physically dangerous and seldom last long. I call them Level I risks. The second kind has something to do with time and commitment. These involve danger more to the spirit than to the body. I call them Level II risks.

Who are Level I risk takers?

People who need intense physical stimulation and excitement. We're just now discovering the role our body and brain chemicals play in determining our need for stimulation. Some people need more of the stress hormones that are released by fear or excitement. The paradox is that they produce fewer of these natural opiates than other people. They crave external stimulation to rev up their inner systems. These are the sky divers, motorcycle racers, people who pursue thrill sports.

What about Level II?

These are people exploding with inner excitement who probably wouldn't dream ot taking physical risks. The risks they take involve expressing themselves, revealing their deepest feelings. Examples would be artists and writers. Also included here are those people who make long-term personal and professional commitments and keep them through years of growth and change. As well as people who speak out for and against issues, whatever the consequences.

Is anyone purely Level I or Level II?

No. We all need some continuity in our lives, and we all need some excitement. Some of us are a lot more one level than the other. And some are Level I to the point of excitement addiction. These are the daredevils—those we usually mean when we think of risk takers.

Is there any risk so basic that it is a challenge to everyone?

I call humiliation the universal risk. We take so many other risks—even potentially fatal ones—to avoid that. High-wire walker Philippe Petit, who denies taking risks, told me he once worked on a cable that was dangerously loose just to avoid the embarrassment of walking away. Another example: The cockpit tapes from the Air Florida crash during a snowstorm in Washington D.C. in 1982 reveal that the pilot and co-pilot discussed the slushy runway and dangerous icing on the wings while they were in line for takeoff, but they went for it anyway. We think of teenagers as the greatest risk takers. It's no coincidence they're the most afraid of looking foolish.

You've written about "pseudorisks" and "the American way of risk." What do you mean?

Americans are schizophrenic about risk taking. Our country was settled by people who pushed off in questionable boats for an unknown land. Now we roam the interstates looking for motels where the best surprise is no surprise. We pay homage to risk taking, but we want our lives to be as convenient and technologically safe as possible. Then, when the secure life gets boring, we seek excitement without any risk. Watching others take chances for us—in horror movies, TV crime shows, boxing, auto racing. There's no danger; the stakes aren't ours. But vicarious risks are inherently unsatisfying.

What else is peculiarly American in our attitudes toward risk?

We have two fundamental values in this country—justice and risk taking. We don't realize that once you take a risk, you go outside the realm of justice into the realm of chance. And chance is not fair. We have so many frivolous lawsuits today—skiers suing the owners of ski resorts, children suing their parents. I think it's because we assume that if anything goes wrong, someone can be blamed for it. And that's because we think risks are not real.

How can we improve our attitudes toward taking risks?

First we can find better alternatives to our needs. For example, Level I riskers who are excitement-addicted can be very antisocial. Skydiving and hang gliding are expensive ways to feed a hunger for risk, so some people turn to dangerous driving and to both violent and nonviolent crime. It's done partly for money, of course, but for some people the need for thrills may be paramount. This trait, by the way, is easily detected in diagnostic tests, and vocational counselors should be steering employable Level I types into appropriate jobs—driving ambulances, washing windows on skyscrapers, working in emergency rooms. Process serving, trial law, stunt work also suit this temperament. Even changing from a day job to a night job can help if you find life after sundown more exciting. We shouldn't shortchange ourselves in terms of the risks we need to take.

What about Level II people?

They need to appreciate and understand their own kinds of daring. They are making commitments and courting humiliation in ways that terrify Level I people. I have an aunt who has lived in the same house most of her life and thinks of herself as the most timid person in the world. But most of her life she wrote and mailed out poetry. Sometimes it was accepted; more often it wasn't. I know thrill seekers who couldn't risk that rejection.

Do you believe that some thrill seekers are manifesting a death wish?

I never saw any evidence of that. One thing that characterizes thrill seekers is the feeling that they are in control of their lives because they choose to put themselves in danger and therefore have the power to save themselves. I don't say it's accurate, but that's the way they look at it. These people are very much engaged in life.

Is it possible, or desirable, to try for a life free of risk?

In the long run not taking a chance you want to take can be even riskier than doing so. Over and over again I heard people mourning the risks they wished they had taken, yet hadn't. But I never once heard anyone who took a substantial risk that they fully understood—whether they won or lost—ever say they regretted it.

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