What makes people pursue risky outdoor adventures?

December 14, 2020

A recently published study examined the motivations of people who partake in risky activities such as rock climbing. (Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash)

As outdoor adventure-based activities that feature personal danger, such as rock climbing, mountain biking and whitewater rafting, grow in popularity, researchers who set out to understand what drives people to take part found that it depends on experience level, with the most seasoned participants seeking personal growth rather than an adrenaline rush.  

In a study published Dec. 3 in Behavioral Sciences, a team of researchers investigated the reasons American adults regularly partake in these activities, looking into internal and external types of motivations.

“What we wanted to do was to seek a deeper, more rich understanding of what was motivating [people] to participate in that activity,” Alan Ewert, a professor emeritus at Indiana University and lead author of the study, told The Academic Times.

External motivations are social-based factors such as competition with others, friendship development and escapism. They have the most similarities with hedonic motivations, which are short-term, and involve self-satisfaction such as experiencing a thrill or rush of some sort. 

Internal motivations can be factors such as fear, control, skill development and a sense of achievement. They align best with eudaimonic motivations, which are more related to personal development and a sense of fulfillment or quest in one’s life.

Eudaimonic motivations for an activity tend to be longer-lasting, but are often harder to achieve. Ewert said the concepts of hedonic and eudaimonic motivations are similar and difficult to disentangle, and both have been associated with well-being and positive psychology. 

The researchers recruited subjects for the study on popular trails and sites across the U.S. that are frequented by participants in mountain biking, rock climbing and whitewater boating, and interviewed them about their experience level in the activity and their motivations for participating in it.

The study, which was conducted in 2019, found that there was only a slight difference between whether a person selected eudaimonic or hedonic motivations as a reason to participate in the activity. However, an individual’s level of experience in the activity played the largest role in their selections: The more experience a person had in the activity, the more likely they were to participate for eudaimonic reasons, such as for personal growth or a sense of fulfillment. 

“What are the driving forces there? It’s got to be more than just an adrenaline rush,” Ewert said. “Particularly, if you’ve done the activity a number of times, and you’re highly experienced or highly skilled, you don’t get that adrenaline rush [anymore]. What do you get?”

Ewert noted that in motivational research studies such as this one, it matters when the participant is questioned — whether before, during or after the activity. Participants who answered before or during the activity tended to have more of a hedonic perspective. 

But if the participants reflected after the activity was over and other factors came into play, such as the success or failure of the activity, then they were more likely to discuss the activity with eudaimonic motivations.

The researchers concluded in the study that it’s possible that both more experience and time for reflection allowed participants to develop a better understanding of how the activity fits into their lives beyond it being a short-term, exciting experience.

And the lack of significant differences suggests that participants can struggle to understand their motivations, “or have complex and often intertwined motivations, for engaging in the recreation activities they choose,” Ewert said in the study.

Ewert previously served in the Air Force, working as a survival instructor during the Vietnam War, and he said the experience sparked his interest in the connection that people have with outdoor landscapes.

“Given the rapid growth of adventure-based recreational activities such as rafting, climbing and adventure tourism, the results of this study will be useful in providing a deeper psychological understanding of the behaviors associated with the reasons why people engage in adventure-based behaviors,” he said in the study.

This year, Ewert has been conducting new studies on the impact of COVID-19 on adventure recreation programs, investigating what types of outcomes the programs should strive for in a post-pandemic environment.

The study, “Underlying Motives For Selected Adventure Recreation Activities: The Case For Eudaimonics And Hedonics,” was published in Behavioral Sciences. Alan Ewert was the lead author of the study, and Ryan Zwart, a professor at Montreat College, and Curt Davidson, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, were co-authors. 

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