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Stem cells + 10: Lessons limits and laments
POSTED 23 OCTOBER 2008
Man pulling his way across a rope over a chasm, hair hanging down into space.

Fear, T-types and the financial mirage

We humans do risky stuff. We climb mountains or break new ground in art or science. We become test pilots who fly to the edge of space or beyond. And we (shudder) invest our hard-earned money in the vaporware sold on Wall Street.

Rock climbers are often archetypal T-type personalities, but is this one going above and beyond the call of duty?
Photo: NIDA

After a month of watching the near-meltdown of the international economic system, The Why Files still wonders why some people are comfortable in situations that evoke fear in others, so we spoke with Frank Farley. A professor of educational psychology at Temple University, Farley has made his name describing the thrill-seeking personality, which he calls the "T-type."

The Why Files: What is the type-T analysis, and what does it tell us about human nature?

Frank Farley: 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. These risks can be physical, 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.

TWF: What is the motivation for seeking thrills?

Farley: 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.

Painting of Picasso holding palette in cubist style
Portrait of Picasso, artistic risk-taker.
Photo: Juan Gris (1887-1927), CSUSM

TWF: Are auto racers or sky divers the archetypal T-types?

Farley: Yes, but 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. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak [founders of Apple Computer] were risk-takers. I believe human progress demands type T behavior. If you look at Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso or Margaret Mead, all crucially important in their fields -- these are not people who choked while standing on the edge.

TWF: And what about the wizards of Wall St?

Farley: The big-Ts like variety, novelty, change, uncertainty, intensity, living on the edge, not knowing the outcome. They tend to be inventive and self-confident, to believe they control their destiny, like to make up own minds, not be pushed around or have rules laid on them. If you package these qualities together, Wall Street turns out to be a natural venue for those people, so we should not be surprised that Wall Street is infested with risk takers.

TWF: Is risk-taking in the economic realm necessarily a bad thing?

Farley: No. There are positive and negative risk takers. We need the healthy, positive types to get to the moon, to solve our problems, to be creative. In this country, we have a high regard for entrepreneurship; inventiveness in all realms, science, industry, arts, has helped us get through lot of problems and has propelled American to where it is today. But there is what I call the T-negative, a form of thrill-seeking with destructive features, impulsiveness, disregard for other people, placing other people at risk. On Wall St., these T-negatives are pushing the envelope, not understanding the full extent of what they do. Finances are complicated; you have to give it time to study the results, but the T-negatives want to move on to new thrills, new excitement.

Man in silver suit kneels in front of missile-like aircraft.
Photo: NASA
Here's a thrill-seeker who gets paid for the privilege! Air Force pilot "Pete" Knight with an X-15. During 16 flights, Knight set an unofficial speed record for a fixed wing plane, 4,520 mph. One flight took him 50 miles above Earth's surface.

TWF: This flip side of the T-type personality is not limited to Wall St., is it?

Farley: This negative side shows up in delinquency, crime, unsafe sex, drinking and driving, crazy risk-taking in general. We've found that big T's have twice as many highway accidents as small t's -- when you control for age, sex, etc. Accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers, often because they put themselves in a dangerous position from a need for thrills.

TWF: Can your analysis help us raise big-T children so they survive childhood?

Farley: I think so. If you understand that certain children need thrills, you can raise them more intelligently. The T-type rebels at rules, and we may do better providing guidance than setting hard-and-fast rules. And there's always the opportunity to channel that thrill-seeking into relatively safe, positive activities. You are not going to stop that thrill-seeking, but you try to prevent them from taking lethal risks. At the very least, you want them to avoid putting other people at risk.

TWF: Does your analysis apply to larger groups as well?

Farley: 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 individuals 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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Terry Devitt, editor; Nathan Hebert, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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