Elasticity of demand: Can bungee jumping be addictive?

“Aaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhh” – or something like it – was the sound I made as I jumped from 300 foot above the River Thames with a piece of elastic tied round my ankles in my one and only bungee-jump. Was I brave? No. Insane? No (although others may take issue). Stupid? Possibly. Was I doing it for a bet? No. To raise money for a charity? No. To have a story to tell the grandchildren? No (but I will have). At the end of the day, I really don’t know what possessed me to take that jump. But I did it. I have about a hundred eyewitnesses, the certificate, the photos, and of course the video of my jump (“Drastic Elastic”).

So how did it all come about? Well, it was one of those spur of the moment things. I was with my partner and some of her friends all of whom had congregated at Battersea Power Station to see one of their long-standing friends do a bungee-jump. The bungee-jump at Battersea as I later found out is the highest in the UK but as I sat drinking bottled lager on the riverside boat bar all I was wondering was why the bloody hell is he going to do it? He had a few weeks to think about it. Thankfully when it came to my jump, I had about half an hour for it to sink in. The only bottle I really had was the one I had been holding full of lager.

Before I went on my jump, a couple of radio journalists went up to do a report. A couple of my colleagues have suggested that it was only the presence of the broadcast media that got me to jump. One jumper who came down while I was waiting described it as the worst experience of his life. What a time to tell me! What’s more, the person before me chickened out when she got to the top. I must admit than when I was finally hoisted up to that birds-eye view over London, I did momentarily think there was still time to change my mind. The forms that I signed before going up were certainly food for thought. There is a phrase in the small print that basically says that in the event of my death or serious injury that I do not hold the UK Bungee Club personally responsible.

As the crane slowly ascended to the jump point my heart got a little faster but I was still looking forward to it. The crane suddenly stopped. The door of the cage opened and there I was standing over the Thames. In three seconds time I would be making my oscillating descent downwards. One of the guys in the crane said he would count to three and then tap me on the shoulder which was my cue to jump. The other guy was holding the camcorder recording my every grimace.

“One. Two. Three. Jump”. I dived off the cage’s platform and hurtled towards my friends in the boat below. I bounced up and down for about half a minute before I realised it was nearly over. The rush I got from the whole experience hit me straight after the jump rather than during it. The term “adrenaline junkie” has now passed into everyday usage and although my main research area concentrates on very specific types of risky behaviour (e.g., gambling) and others perceive me to be someone who generally takes risks, I would be the first to admit that bungee jumping is not something that has ever been one of my lifelong desires.

It is therefore something of an irony that one of my ex-PhD students (Dr. Michael Larkin) did his research on the relationship between addiction and identity and interviewed bungee-jumpers about their experiences and whether they view their high-risk behaviour as addictive (research that we eventually published in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology). I also realize that if I was interviewing myself about my experiences of bungee jumping I’d be hard pressed to give any kind of rational explanation of why I did it.

Large-scale research in the area of young people and risk-taking has tended to focus on ‘risk-takers’. This term clearly situates the ‘risky-ness’ within a particular kind of person, and captures only the negative aspect of such behaviours (i.e., risk). In our published research, Dr. Larkin and I purposefully used the term ‘risky-but-rewarding activities’ for two reasons. Firstly, the term situates ‘risky-ness’ within activities, rather than the persons engaging in them, and secondly, it captures both the positive and negative aspects of such activities (i.e., risk and reward).

In one of our studies, we used semi-structured interviews to explore the experiences and understandings of two small groups of participants engaging in either dangerous sports (i.e., bungee jumpers) or recreational drug use (i.e., Ecstasy users). We chose these two particular activities because they provided an opportunity to explore an interesting psychological question – how do individuals evaluate and understand the relationship between risk and pleasure?

All participants had what can best be described as ‘non-problematic’ relationships with their respective activities (i.e. they did not consider themselves as ‘addicted’. Furthermore, all of the participants in our study claimed they made informed and educated decisions about the risks involved in their respective activities – even though there were variations in each individual’s appraisal of how great this risk might actually be, and of how well-informed they were.

We found both similarities and differences between the bungee-jumpers and the Ecstasy users. Initiation into bungee jumping was presented as the consequence of an active, rational decision. Perhaps this was possible for the bungee-jumpers, in contrast to the ecstasy users, because they had fewer reservations to overcome. We also reported that there seemed to be no expectation of unknown, long-term risk associated with bungee jumping (as opposed to Ecstasy use). Secondly, bungee jumping does not represent an analogous ‘boundary point’ between relatively minor involvement, and more serious involvement, in dangerous sports, in the way that Ecstasy use and amphetamine use may do within general drug-taking activities. Thus, we can see that ‘contextual decisions’ may have a psychological function for the user, as a means of overcoming reservations (through denial of agency), and a discursive function for the speaker, as a means of rationalizing a ‘risky shift.’ However, even though bungee jumpers did not utilize this strategy, they still presented their activities as participatory, and acknowledged that social elements contributed to the rewards of the activity, and carried out a considerable amount of identity work in the interviews, which collectively suggests that (like Ecstasy-use) participation grants access to an identity, and gives the user a voice within a particular sub-culture.

We also found that first experiences of bungee jumping and Ecstasy-use were often ambivalent, and sometimes even unpleasant. This ambivalence was generally reported as leading to a stage of ‘learning to like it.’ This might be considered a key process in moving from initiation to maintaining use. Our analysis of the data sought to illuminate something of what it means to take risks for pleasure in our culture. From this process, a number of insights have emerged.

Firstly, it seemed that initiation into a risk-taking activity may require numerous strategies in order to overcome one’s own reservations, and also to accommodate perceived disapproval from others. These strategies include momentary denials of agency (such as the construction of ‘contextual decisions’ rather than ‘rational decisions’), emphasis on the value of ‘inclusion’ for maintaining friendship and cultural identity, the use of anticipated regret as a rationale for accepting possible consequences, and emphasis on the intrinsic value of collecting a broad range of experiences.

Secondly, while initiation may involve some denial of agency, once the person is initiated, and it perhaps becomes evident that the activity can be maintained relatively safely (costs; managing risks) and satisfactorily (learning to like it; learning to control it), then engagement in the activity becomes more rationalized. This involves the acquisition of information about the risks involved, espousing certain practices in response to those risks, and explaining accidents in terms of inappropriate engagement in the activity. In these ways, short-term risks can be managed and accepted as appropriate to the pleasure received.

One interesting feature of the accounts we collected is their positive, appetitive and wilful orientation toward risk. Our participants articulated a relationship with risk that allowed us to see it as a source of pleasure and reward, cultural identity and social participation, but also perhaps as a means of expressing resistance to conventional constraints. Risk-taking was not exactly ‘normal’ for our participants. Its very abnormality was part of its transgressive allure, but at the same time it was mediated by attempts to adopt safe practices, and as such it cannot be understood simply as negativistic action either. Instead, it makes more sense to understand the value of these transgressive acts in terms of access granted to both desirable identities and modified mood states. Whatever future research uncovers, I will always have my bungee jumping certificate that takes pride of place in my office and reads:

“This certifies that in a brief moment of bravado, Dr. Mark Griffiths being of sound mind did of their own choice leap from a 300ft platform. When they launched themselves into space their only touch with reality was a bungee cord attached to their ankles. This courageous person has hereby encountered “The Ultimate Adrenalin Experience”. Lesser beings should now show the respect and admiration due to the intrepid Bungee Jumper, who has undertaken to accept their fame with some restraint and modesty”

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Beck, U. (1992). The risk society: Towards a new modernity. London: Sage.

Douglas, M. (1994). Risk and blame. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Bungee jumping madness: A personal case study. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 61, 34-36.

Larkin, M. (2002). Understandings and experiences: A post-constructionist cultural psychology of addiction and recovery in the 12-step tradition. Unpublished PhD. thesis, Nottingham Trent University.

Larkin, M., & Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Experiences of addiction and recovery: The case for subjective accounts. Addiction Research and Theory, 10, 281–311.

Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.

Plant, M., & Plant, M. (1992). Risk-takers: Alcohol, drugs, sex and youth. London: Routledge.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on July 9, 2013, in Addiction, Case Studies, Drug use, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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