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The Science Of Scary: Why It's So Fun To Be Freaked Out

Psychologist Ken Carter studies why some people seek out haunted houses and other thrills — even though he's not one of them.
Kay Hinton
Emory University
Psychologist Ken Carter studies why some people seek out haunted houses and other thrills — even though he's not one of them.

Haunted houses. Skydiving. Scary movies.

Why do these horrifying things make some people delighted, and others, well, horrified?

For answers, NPR's Maddie Sofia, host of the daily science podcast Short Wave, spoke with the guy who wrote the book on what makes those folks tick. Ken Carter teaches psychology at Oxford College of Emory University and is the author of Buzz! Inside the Minds of Thrill-Seekers, Daredevils and Adrenaline Junkies.

In the book, Carter — a self-proclaimed lover of calm — gets into the minds of a "subset of people who crave stimulation and thrive in environments that would seem overstimulating, even chaotic, to the rest of us."

Sofia and Carter discussed the biology and psychology of thrill seeking, what adaptive benefit it might provide and their own levels of thrill tolerance. "This [interview] is about as much excitement as I can take," said Carter.

And in case you're wondering whether you're a true adventurer or more of a couch potato, Carter has a quiz that identifies where people lie along the thrill-to-chill spectrum.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

We have a listener, Charlotte from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who wants to know why she's into scary things, because it's very counterintuitive for her that people would willingly put themselves into scary situations.

It sounds like this person is probably a high-sensation seeker. Sensation seeking is a fascinating psychological personality trait. These people — they like being put into scary and sometimes terrifying situations.

It's fun for them.

Yeah absolutely. You can find high-sensation seekers doing adventure sports or eating unusual kinds of foods. I interviewed a woman who used to roller-skate in downtown Chicago — which I do not recommend — but she would skate between the cars. She knew her body knew what to do and when to do it.

Tell me the difference between someone like Charlotte versus people like you who don't like being scared?

You're probably familiar with the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol is one of the hormones responsible for getting us ready to fight, flee or freeze in those situations. What we find is that high-sensation seekers — they don't produce that much cortisol in those situations. What they produce more of is dopamine, the neurotransmitter that's associated with pleasure.

So the folks who like scary stuff have less of a stress response during the scary stuff and more of a "This is fun!" response?

Absolutely. The low-sensation seekers, on the other hand, they're producing more cortisol. So they're actually getting their body ready to fight the danger. And they're probably not producing that much dopamine.

There's another layer to it which is that there are two different systems in your body that are sort of like traffic lights that respond to things around you. The behavioral inhibition system says, "Oh, this is something that's possibly dangerous" and tells you to stop. And the behavior activation system tells you, "This is something good, approach it." People that are high-sensation seekers may have overactive or really high-approach systems.

They're just like, "Green light all the time, let's do this?"

Exactly, "Let's do this." And because they're not having as much of an inhibition system, they're approaching those things more often.

What's the most ridiculous thing you've found somebody will pay for to be scared?

So apparently you can pay someone to kidnap you.



There used to be — I think there still is — a service. Prices range from $150 to $1,500 for the kidnapping, you can arrange a time for you to be kidnapped and then they come and do it. I don't know what you get for the $150.

$150 is not enough money!

Yeah I don't know. It just seems like so many things could go wrong.

OK, moving on ... what are some of the characteristics of these sensation-seekers?

I know you would think that these are wild, crazy people, but sometimes they're the chillest people that you can imagine.

Because the people that are the high-sensation seekers — these are the people who can really tame chaos. There are some physiological traits that make that easier for them, actually.

I do a lot of whitewater kayaking, which can be very intense and scary. When I'm in that situation, I feel like it lets me focus on the one thing, like all I have to think about is trying not to die in that boat — is that real?

Oh yeah. So there's a psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he talks about the state that people get in — they call it the flow state — where time sort of passes away and they're focused on the thing that they're doing. High-sensation seekers love to get into that flow state — their body knows exactly what to do.

A lot of people feel like high-sensation seekers do these reckless things. Interestingly, sometimes they don't perceive the things that they do as reckless because their bodies are telling them that it doesn't feel dangerous.

Is someone who's a thrill-seeker always going to be that way or does this change with age? Can you grow out of this?

The research suggests that high-sensation seeking tends to peak in adolescence, which probably explains why a lot of the videos that you see online are [adolescents] doing these kinds of things. And then it tends to go down a little bit.

There may be some changes that make people not be as sensation seeking as they get older, biologically, and also maybe even environmentally. I talked to one woman who said that she loves going skydiving — but her husband reminds her that she has kids who would like to continue to have a mom and that maybe she shouldn't skydive as much as she would want to.

Do we know why this is a thing, like from an evolutionary standpoint or anything like that?

We kind of need high-sensation seekers. We need them as first responders. We want people who can save us during certain times. You want a high-sensation seeker in the cockpit of an airplane during an emergency.

You do not want someone like me working in an emergency room. I would be overwhelmed with all of the chaos. Luckily, when there are emergencies that happen, training can kick in for a lot of people. There are some advantages to having high-sensation seekers around us, for sure.

Rebecca Ramirez produced the audio version of this piece.

Emily Vaughn is NPR's Science Desk intern. You can find her on Twitter at @emilyannevaughn.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Madeline Sofia is the host of Short Wave — NPR's daily science podcast. Short Wave will bring a little science into your life, all in about 10 minutes. Sometimes it'll be a good story, a smart conversation, or a fun explainer, but it'll always be interesting and easy to understand. It's a break from the relentless news cycle, but you'll still come away with a better understanding of the world around you.
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