Prince Edward did not make a gaffe. He didn't say the death of the boy was good. He did say it was a tragedy. Quite clearly he wants people doing the scheme to be safe. But the need for adventure when young (and even when more mature) has been well proven. Read on….
LIVING DANGEROUSLY The Hidden Truth about Risk and Adventure – and its costs. This article enshrines the current understanding of risk in our society within a research paradigm. It is a sobering article on the paranoia within our society and its cost.
Ian Lewis Coordinator Campaign for Adventure
It is estimated that the average USA teenager has seen 10,000 deaths on the TV screen by the age of fifteen. The vast majority will never actually see a single violent death in all their lifetimes. Some of us get our fix from risk for real; the rest of us satisfy our craving second hand. We are excited by the things we fear most. We want to live in a dangerous world. So by imagining the world is a more dangerous place than ever, we are just keeping ourselves entertained in a world that has become worryingly safe.
We are programmed to need risk, we do not seek total safety but our own level of danger.
Risk is a balance of benefit and danger. We can make mistakes because we misunderstand the dangers, but the consequences can be just
as serious when we exaggerate or ignore the benefits.
LIVING DANGEROUSLY The Hidden Truth about Risk and Adventure – and its costs
1. 'Why some people get pleasure out of risking their lives while others are too scared to leave their homes'.
2. 'Also exploding some of the myths about relative dangers in today's society'.
We seem to live in an evermore frightening world, a world full of risk. Dangers lurk in the most ordinary things - 'BSE in beef can pass to humans', 'cases of aids in heterosexuals have doubled in the last year'. It would appear that threats are to be found on every side - 'police seek murderer who clubbed a 7 year old girl to death and left her body in a derelict warehouse'.
But is the world really more dangerous, or could it be that we profoundly misunderstand the nature of risk so that our fears of the increasing risk of violence, murder and lethal disease are an illusion - the product of a desire to live dangerously?
A man in a speeding car who talks about adrenaline as 'kicking in like a freight train and taking over your body' or 'like having sex for the first time'. We think we want to make the world a safe place. But some of us seek danger such as those who jump off tall buildings - "I don't want to die, I don't want to kill myself. I'm so scared, so scared. What am I doing it for? Am I doing it for me? I thought I was looking death in the eye". This behaviour [jumping off a tall building] not only looks dangerous, it is dangerous. So why do some people voluntarily court danger. We can't dismiss these base jumpers as a few aberrant lunatics. They are the extreme end of a much larger group of people who deliberately toy with fear. In an age that many fear is increasingly dangerous, where we are actually aware of rising crime, contaminated food and new uncontrollable diseases, how can it be that some individuals set out to increase their level of danger?
Over the last few decades scientific research has begun to uncover the answers to this question and is in the process of overturning our whole understanding of risk and our most basic assumptions about everyday life.
It all began 20 years ago on the prairies of mid western Canada. Dr. Peter Yu, a young student biochemist at the local Saskatoon University, got permission to carry out an unusual experiment. Saskatoon is home to one of the largest prisons for the criminally insane in Canada. Some of its patients have a taste for extreme violence. The inmates are those who have committed multiple murders or been responsible for a series of vicious attacks. Dr. Yu was looking to discover something in the physical make up of the prisoners that might be responsible for their dangerous behaviour. Dr. Yu had become interested in an enzyme found in human blood. It is called, 'MAO' [monoamine oxydase]. At that time it was believed that the level of MAO was related to an individual's mood. Yu decided to examine the prisoners at the Baskatoun Penitentiary. He isolated 35 of the most violent psychopaths to see whether they might have different levels of MAO from the rest of us.
Dr. Yu says, "I was hoping to be able to find some biological marker for mental disorders and a better strategy for treatment". He took blood samples and separated out the enzyme. The results were significant. The more violent the psychopath, the lower the level of MAO. The level of MAO of the most violent prisoner was about roughly one third less than normal. Yu was excited by this seeming relationship of MAO to violence but felt, " We don't yet understand. What does that mean to us?" Was this a biological marker, an indicator of mental instability, or of an inclination to violent behaviour? 7000 miles away in Spain was a clue to the answer.
A clinical scientist, Jose Carasco, working in Madrid, had an unexpected theory to explain some of his mentally ill patients' behaviour. Instead of explaining their reactions as a result of depression or mental instability, he thought it might be caused by a desire for sensation or danger. Carasco was aware of Dr. Yu's findings, - "MAO could be related with some types of mental disorders". Carasco wondered whether this depressed level of MAO was due to an increased desire for risk. [the programme then showed clips of bullfighters in the ring making misjudgements and being gored by bulls]. Every year 150 bullfighters are seriously injured and death is routine. One of the bullfighters saying, "When you see the bull in front of you, and you see its eyes, and you put the bull near you, and around you, you feel the pleasure, the excitement. You are at the centre of the world for the moment. I like risk because behind the risk is the person".
Carasco tried to find out by psychological tests just how risk taking they were. Then he tested them for levels of MAO. The results were striking. "We found that the level of MAO in bullfighters is significantly lower than in the healthy people in the control group with no risking behaviour." The matadors, who were the most risk taking and seen in the ring to be the most courageous, were the very ones who had the lowest MAO scores. Here was evidence suggesting the desire to take risks was driven by our biological make-up. "Risk taking is a personality trait that can develop in a bad way, or a good way, or in a neutral way", said Carasco. Did this explain Dr. Yu's result? Could it be that the low level of MAO found in the psychopath was an indication of an excess desire for sensation and risk; a desire that then led them to violence and unstable behaviour.
Dr. Yu then investigated patients who sought at all costs to avoid risk - i.e. the opposite . A woman called Penny Jane had been scared for 6 years to go out or even shop in a supermarket because she was so frightened to do that. She was tested for MAO and found to have higher than normal levels. Life was felt to be full of unavoidable risks. Routine tasks had become impossible. She tried to overcome this by confronting her fear,deep breathing and relaxation and the help of a counsellor. Most of us see shopping as risk free, but for Penny Jane, the supermarket was a place of overwhelming risk.Dr. Yu tested 29 people like Penny for MAO levels and they were all found to have a much higher level compared with normal people.
This result once again suggested that this type of behaviour was driven by a biological predisposition to avoid what they perceived as risk, whilst psychopaths with lower MAO levels wanted more risk and more sensation.
Professor Gerald Wilde of Queen's University, Canada, then appeared on the programme to say, " People are programmed to be willing to take risks and to accept a certain amount of risk in their lives, just as their bodies have been programmed to maintain a core body temperature".
If we are programmed, it appears that we are all programmed differently as the experiment showed. Experiments have shown that men have lower levels of MAO than women - and so it is that men tend to take more risks than women. It has also been shown that levels of MAO increase as we get older - and so it is that we tend to get more cautious with age. So it is young men who are likely to take the greatest risks. Risk taking can be for the good or the bad, but if we try to avoid risk altogether, life comes to a halt. Wilde says, "To reject risk is to reject life. The only thing that is followed by total certainty is death - and that is not what we want. It is when we suppose we want to eradicate risk, when we suppose that we want a perfectly safe world, that our decisions about what to do, go seriously wrong.
We are programmed to need risk, we do not seek total safety but our own level of danger.
Ontario has thousands of unmanned, ungated, unlit, level railway crossings with no warnings or barriers. 200 people have been killed on them in the last 10 years. Risk expert, Gerald Wilde, monitored a crossing over a 5 week period seeing a total of 517 cars. The results were unexpected. Of the drivers seen, 75% could not be classified as safe because they approached too fast to be able to stop in time if a train appeared at the wrong moment. Removing trees and other obstacles to vision to give a clearer view of the track did not improve safety. Speed increased so the risk level remained the same. People slow down in narrow winding country lanes and speed up on wider motorways with their central barrier protection to the effect that the danger level remains the same, is constant in each situation. This means we can't make the world safer by protecting people. Many safety benefits are used by people to be able to improve performance ( safety belts and safety bags in car for example or running belays on climbs) while maintaining the estimated risk at the same level - that is why we like the safety aids.
It may seem strange that people refuse to act safely, but it is necessary for us to live and being alive is dangerous. There is risk even when we are in bed asleep. But from the moment we wake up the risk increases. In Britain alone, 20 people are electrocuted every year by their bedside light or alarm clock; 20 are killed falling over as they get out of bed; 30 drown in the bath; 60 are seriously injured even just putting on their socks; 600 (nearly 2 per day) die from falling down stairs. If we try to make the world perfectly safe we have to remove baths and socks and stairs. It would be impossible. Gerald Wilde says, " Zero risk is not a meaningful option, because zero in this case can only be obtained by not doing anything at all. And imagining the world could be perfectly safe is not only impossible, it could be dangerous." An example quoted was perceiving the contraceptive pill to be OK when there is some risk of harmful side effects such as blood clotting. Throwing the pills away does not solve the problem either. "If half a million people stopped taking the pill, perhaps one might be saved from the side effects. If half a million people become pregnant we might expect 25-30 to die". It is a confused perception of the nature of the risk to stop taking the pill. Wilde again - "The art of life is not to reduce risk to zero but to take the right amount of risk - not too little , not too much. There should be risk in your life like there is salt in your soup - not too little , not too much".
Trying to eradicate risk altogether leads to some strange decisions. Even today, BSE sounds scary. But the latest figures for the number of people who die in Britain from 'new variant CJD' each year is 15. That is a quarter of the number who drowned in their baths but no one supposes we ban baths! The UK Govt banning beef-on-the-bone, is a further weird outcome. On the basis of current estimates, approximately one death could be expected from eating such beef in the next 10 years - in which time 6000 people in the UK would have died from falling downstairs - but we don't propose to to ban stairs. The same principle applies elsewhere to many of the supposed risks of which we are frightened. Less than 10 people died last year in the UK having caught aids who were not in a high risk category. For most of us the risk of dying from aids is a lot less than falling out of bed. We don't propose to ban beds. The media causes all kinds of scares because of concentrating on the one adverse complication and ignoring the whole picture.
But being misled about the dangers of an action is not the only error we can make when it comes to risk. Misunderstanding the benefit can lead to equally serious mistakes.
Risk is a balance of benefit and danger. We can make mistakes because we misunderstand the dangers, but the consequences can be just as serious when we exaggerate or ignore the benefits.
Professor John Henry, consultant at St.Mary's Hospital now appeared on the programme to say, "If you ask, 'which is more risky, ecstasy or alcohol, people will say ecstasy'. Yet we know that alcohol is a far greater risk." In November 1995 he was contacted about the case of a girl, Leah Betts, on life support. They said it was a contaminated drug which brought on her condition. It dominated the headlines" Henry correctly diagnosed Leah had died from excessive drinking of water, but the media wanted him to say that ecstasy is harmful and kills because some young people believe it is lovely and no problem at all. News coverage of Leah Betts' death was massive and shifted the public's conception and was frightening people about ecstasy.Her parents expressed their anger on TV and no parent could be unaware of the dangers of ecstasy. As a result few would think the benefit of taking the drug outweighed the risk.
But in other cases our concentration on the benefits inclines us to ignore the dangers such as an excess of alcohol causing poisoning or collapse and death. The programme then quoted the case of young Mark Daggett who died after an excessive drinking spree because his airways were blocked by vomit and his tongue. His brain had suffered irreparable damage. "He was killed by lack of oxygen to his brain" said Henry. "When that happens there is nothing you can do. Like Leah Betts, Mark Daggett fell into a coma and died, but there was a difference! Leah died with headlines. Mark merited one article in a national newspaper and then only at the time of the inquest. Ecstasy kills perhaps one person a month and that's small potatoes. Alcohol is a massive problem - it kills a hundred people a day." 30-40% of cases in the hospital where John Henry works are directly due to alcohol. Mark Daggett's father was understandably perplexed. BSE, egg scares etc get plastered all over the papers and television but they do not mention alcohol. Alcohol is drunk by almost everyone, we all enjoy the benefits. We therefore hide from the huge cost - we do not want to hear the bad news. We perceive the benefit of alcohol to be great but are prepared to ignore the dangers it can cause - road accidents, fights and all kinds of other catastrophes. Somehow it is accepted - it is a national scandal.
Interviews with young people show that they consider the drug ecstasy to have significant recreational therapy - it gives a great sense of well-being. In contrast to alcohol relatively few people have experienced those benefits and those that have are unlikely to have a powerful voice in society. So the benefit remains hidden and in contrast we are inclined to exaggerate the dangers. We make mistakes about risk because all actions are a balance of danger and benefit. We frequently misunderstand the level of danger and the level of benefit.
Could it be then that in some respects the world is not as dangerous as we think it is? For every person that is murdered today, 10 were murdered in the Middle Ages. In the last 200 years the murder rate has been halved. For every death from infectious diseases now there were a 130 deaths in the Middle Ages. And for every death from sexually transmitted diseases there were 20 deaths a century ago. Travelling any distance used to be a hazardous business- today we can travel across the globe in relative security. Far from being more dangerous for many, life is safer than it has ever been. John Henry again - "We've got rid of many risks - road accidents are reduced, some pollutants are gone, so we have a much cleaner and greener society. At the same time people are becoming obsessed with smaller and smaller risks. Why? Is it perhaps that far from being frightened of them we enjoy them? The base jumpers did it for the kicks, for the edge - "If I didn't have it I'd be unhappy. If I didn't have it I'd be looking for something else". Gerald Wilde - "Life is inconceivable without risk. Survival of the individual is unthinkable without people taking risks"
So a world in which risk has been virtually eliminated is not one that is necessarily appealing; some of us are prepared to go to extreme lengths to inject risk back into our lives. But it is not just the base jumpers and the bull fighters. That is what all who do dangerous sports are up to - skiing down steep rocky faces - doing 'the ultimate' - looking for danger in a world which for them has become too safe. And if we are not seeking risk directly, we get excitement from watching others take risks. It is a way of adding some excitement to one's life. Maybe that is why the news makes the world appear so dangerous even when it isn't, be it aids, ecstasy, BSE or whatever. The media use events to highlight and show how nasty or harmful they are. They do not give a balanced assessment. The balancing bit is usually edited out.
It is estimated that the average USA teenager has seen 10,000 deaths on the TV screen by the age of fifteen; of those the vast majority will never actually see a single violent death in all their lifetimes. Some of us get our fix from risk for real; the rest of us satisfy our craving second hand. We are excited by the things we fear most. We want to live in a dangerous world. So by imagining the world is a more dangerous place than ever, we are just keeping ourselves entertained in a world that has become worryingly safe.