BASE jumpers don’t have a death wish, says Temple University psychologist Frank Farley.
“They have a life wish,” he said.
Farley has spent decades studying extreme athletes and risk takers — people who climb Mount Everest, drive race cars, sail across oceans alone in a tiny boat — and helped coin a new personality classification for these people. He calls it “Type T” — where “T” stands for “thrill.”
“You can look at these people and say, ‘They are stupid,’” Farley said in a 2006 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I might say, ‘That is their personality.’”
As Farley explained it to the Chicago Tribune, “Type T” personalities require a higher level of stimulation to “get revved up” than the average person, driving them to take greater and greater risks. These thrill seekers can become athletes and adventurers or “mental risk takers” like artists and scientists, but they are always optimistic, charismatic and confident. So confident that they often don’t even consider what they’re doing a risk.
“They’ll say, ‘I’m not taking risks, I’m an expert,’” he told the LA Times. “... They don’t want to die and they don’t expect to die.”
Erik Monasterio, a former BASE jumper, mountaineer and psychologist at New Zealand’s University of Otago, believes that the “Type T” personality manifests at a chemical level. In a 2012 study on BASE jumpers, he found that extreme athletes may have a lower level of circulating dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is released during risky activities and causes feelings of satisfaction or pleasure. That’s what drives them to seek out more and more dangerous experiences, he told the New York Times.
Fear is part of it too, Farley added.
“People will tell you, when you’re at the edge of danger, that’s when you really feel life,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “This is what being alive is for them. They don’t want to sit at a desk all day.”
That analysis certainly jibes with BASE jumpers’ own description of their sport.
“If you can’t comprehend it, it seems crazy,” Mark Knutson, who compiles a fatality list for BLiNC, a website devoted to BASE jumping.
But “for us, we all know we’re going to die,” he added. “The biggest fear is not living our lives.”