Everest Psychology

The headline is about deaths on Everest, but a BBC article by Rachel Nuwer (follow her on Twitter) also covers psychological theories of risk taking and needs satisfaction.  Several points are relevant for management and organizational behavior.

Sensation-seeking theory is based on the idea that there are stable differences across people in their need for varied sensations, arousal levels, and experience (Zuckerman 1979, Sensations Seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal). A person’s behavior is strongly influenced by seeking to achieve preferred sensations.  The theory has been applied to athletes to explain motivations to engage in dangerous activities, including mountaineering.

Counterphobia offers a different explanation.  While most people avoid their phobias (fears), people with counterphobia feel compelled to directly challenge their fears as a means of overcoming them.  Some mountaineers explain their taking up the activity because they were afraid of heights and wanted to try to overcome that fear.  Counterphobics often experience a transfer effect, a lingering feeling of satisfaction that lasts for a time after completing a challenge.  Chronic counterphobics can find themselves driven to take on greater and greater challenges, which sometimes leads to impressive accomplishments but can also lead them to engage in highly risky behaviors, such as climbing very dangerous mountains.

Counterphobia is exemplified in the quote often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, “Do something everyday that scares you.”


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