T-types thrive on thrills
When you stop to think about it, humans do strange stuff. We go to scary movies -- even pay for the privilege. We go to amusement parks to ride machines that turn us upside down and inside out. bungee jumping from a balloonAnd why does the list of nutty sports -- bungee-jumping, sky diving, auto and bike racing, extreme skiing, hot-air ballooning -- seem to grow longer every year?

Simply: Why do we do the things we do?

Thrills are the unique province of psychologist Frank Farley, who made his professional and popular name on the topics of the thrill-seeking personality, and coining a memorable name for it -- the type T. Simply put, T-types are on the lookout for thrills, while t-types are eager to avoid them.

Don't try this at home. John Kockelman (stunt engineer) bungee jumps from a hot-air balloon. Chris Conkright, photographer. Courtesy of Bungee Adventures.

The Why Files writer David Tenenbaum spoke with Farley, a professor at Temple University, in the company of his white Pyrenees, a friendly, risk-averse pooch mis-named Big T.

Q. What is the type-T analysis, and what does it tell us about human nature?
A. It's a way of studying a person's risk-taking behavior. It indicates how comfortable someone is at living on the edge, at taking chances. Now, these risks can be physical, or mental, or both. But what I call a big T likes risk, likes thrills, whereas a small t does not. It's a continuum -- from risk-taking to risk-avoidance -- it's not as if you're suddenly a big T because you do one risky thing. But if your hallmark as a person is liking to take risks, liking novelty, then you're a big T. If you're attracted to certainty and routine, you're a small t.
Q. What is the motivation for seeking thrills?
A. Much of it is simply for the thrill of it, it's not always for some good purpose. Big T's may need a higher level of physiological arousal than others, and they need to take risks to get that arousal. At this time, we don't know the physiological basis for risk-taking. There are a lot of theories, but I'd rather reserve judgment.
Q. Are bungee jumpers and sky divers the archetypal T-types?
A. Yes, but I want to stress that risk-taking can be mental as well as physical. I think Albert Einstein was thrilled by his mental life. What kept him going was the thrill of uncertainty. The same thing goes for capitalists -- who thrive in the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. They're risk-takers.
Q. How important are T types?
A. I believe human progress demands type T behavior. If you look at Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso or Margaret Mead, all crucially important in their fields -- these are not people who choked while standing on the edge.
Q. Does your analysis apply to larger groups as well, or only to individuals?
A. America is a type-T country, because it's populated by the children of immigrants, many of whom are almost by definition risk takers. The vitality and individual freedom here contrast to a small-t country like China, with its ancient, group-oriented, traditional culture. In America, the system of laws is conducive to individual action, the degree of freedom leaves a lot of room for individual to do what they want to do. But if you remember that Ts can be positive or negative, can be very creative, or very violent or destructive, I think that characterizes this country as well.

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