The Associated Press
Published: September 8, 2007
What prompts climbers to return to the mountains after losing toes to frostbite and partners to fatal falls? What prompts daredevil Alain Robert, the self-proclaimed "Spiderman," to scale scores of the world's tallest structures with bare hands and no safety net?
"When you get to the very bottom of people who take risks, it's the thrill of it," said Temple University psychologist Frank Farley. "It can be a physical thrill, it can be a mental thrill, or it can be both."
While the search for Fossett and his missing plane continues, friends and colleagues have described him as a careful planner who meticulously prepared his adventures — whether by balloon, glider or sailboat — to minimize danger. Some have insisted "daredevil" is a misnomer for him, even as he was hatching plans to break the world's land speed record.
But Michael Dunn, whose friendship with Fossett dates back to an early 1980s climbing expedition in Antarctica, described him as "the quintessential adventurer" and said risk was always part of the equation.
"You fully understand that there's a possibility that you might not come out of this," said Dunn, who was at the Minden, Nevada, airport where the search for Fossett was being run.
"Is the risk worth the reward? In my opinion it isn't even a question," he said. "You have to be willing to risk the possibility of failure."
Farley is a past president of the American Psychological Association who has extensively studied risk-taking. He says it is an aspect of human nature with both positive and negative sides. For example, he said a significant amount of crime is motivated by thrill-seeking impulses.
"But Steve Fossett was on the constructive side," Farley said. "He embodies an incredibly important spirit in humanity."
"Often the people who are not the thrill seekers look at that behavior and say, 'They're crazy,'" Farley added. "In fact, it's the impulse that created the modern world — it's the force of inventiveness, creativity, individuality, change and survival."
Farley says researchers who categorize people as Type A or Type B personalities should add a third category — Type T — for thrill-seekers.
Many psychologists have linked contemporary risk-taking to patterns of social change. Those who perceive today's world as too predictable and safe may be tempted to seek an outlet in the form of extreme sports such as parachuting off cliffs or snowmobiling on avalanche-prone mountainsides.
Others take risks in a quest to set records — to be the youngest, oldest or first of a certain category to accomplish a particular feat, such as circumnavigating the globe alone.
"In our modern world, we've eliminated a lot of risks and threats that our ancestors faced," said Daniel Kruger, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. "People might seek these thrills because their current environment is so safe it's not giving them the same stimulation."
For some of these risk-takers, there can be an almost addictive reaction, Kruger said. "Because they're continually seeking the thrill that they felt before, they need to do more and more to recapture that same sensation."
Both Kruger and Farley suggested that risk-taking, in its positive form, can correlate with business and financial success.
For Fossett, who funded his adventures with a fortune amassed as a commodities broker, success was a matter of personal achievement, not of publicity and fame, according to Dunn.
"He's a very low-key, understated person who does the things that he likes to do for the passion of it," Dunn said.
Recalling a talk with Fossett about adventuring, Dunn summarized his friend's attitude: "If you do these kinds of things and you do them well, it's the same sort of philosophy you need to succeed in business or to succeed in life or to succeed in marriage or to succeed in anything, because you have the tenacity and you have the focus and you have the direction to do that."
Associated Press writer Brendan Riley in Minden, Nevada, contributed to this report.