Recent research suggests that genetic, environmental, and personal factors can make people take on risky—even potentially fatal—challenges.

What Makes Risk Takers Tempt Fate?

Moments before hurling herself off a thousand-foot cliff, professional climber, wingsuiter and BASE jumper Steph Davis feels a surge of fear and excitement. Her heart rate spikes and her insides rumble. As she pushes away from edge, those electric feelings give way to an intense rush, then deep focus. She must position her body just so for her wingsuit to fill with air. Then, she must deploy her parachute at precisely the right moment and nail her landing, often within the span of 60 seconds.

She’s jumped off thousands of cliffs and understands the risks inherent to her sport. In 2013, her husband Mario Richard died while they were wingsuiting together in the Dolomites. Two years later, her ex-husband Dean Potter died in a wingsuiting accident in Yosemite Valley, California. Just this week, fellow wingsuiter and BASE jumper Cameron Minni died when he tried to jump from Ha Ling Peak outside of Canmore, Alberta. According to a study by the University of Colorado School of Medicine, 76 percent of fliers have experienced a close call.

Despite the danger, Davis tries to BASE jump or wingsuit almost every day of the year.
In the face of such devastating consequences, why are some people drawn to risky endeavors—to surfing waves 10 stories high, launching off cliffs on skis, or sailing through the air in a wingsuit? The answer may lie in a complex mix of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors.
Born With a Taste for Adventure

Even before we’re born, our appetite for risk may be mapped out in our DNA. “Certain individuals may be driven to take risks in order to reap the rewards, the rush—and this may be in part due to their genetic make up,” says Cynthia Thomson, PhD, the researcher behind a 2014 study from the University of British Columbia that suggests that risk-taking behavior is, at least in part, genetic. Thomson’s study was the first to look at the genetic factors that might make someone predisposed to participating in extreme sports, which are typically defined as activities where death or severe injury is a very real possibility. Think sky-diving, skiing potentially fatal slopes, or rock climbing without a rope.

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