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Higher and higher: A brief look at rock climbing as an addiction

In previous blogs I have looked at the alleged addictiveness of extreme sports including BASE jumping and bungee jumping as well as briefly overviewing so called ‘adrenaline junkies’. Over the last year, a couple of papers by Robert Heirene, David Shearer, and Gareth Roderique-Davies have looked at the addictive properties of rock climbing specifically concentrating on withdrawal symptoms and craving.

In the first paper on withdrawal symptoms published last year in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, the authors highlighted some previous research suggesting that there are similarities in the phenomenology of substance-related addictions and extreme sports. For instance, they noted:

Extreme sports athletes commonly describe a “rush” or “high” when participating in their sport (Buckley, 2012; Price & Bundesen, 2005) and liken these experiences to those of drug users (Willig, 2008). For example, a participant in Willig’ s study described: “It’s like for a drug user, they will take cocaine to get high. For me it’s my addiction, I have to go to the mountains to get high.”  Similarly, skydivers have described their sport as “like an addiction,” stating that they “can’t get enough,” and their “relationships suffer” as a result (Celsi, Rose, & Leigh, 1993).”

They also noted prior research suggesting that athletes may experience withdrawal states during periods of abstinence that are also characteristic of those with an addiction. Heirene and his colleagues claimed that this their study was the first to explore withdrawal experiences of individuals engaged in extreme sports. They carried out a study very similar to one of my own where Michael Smeaton and I published a study where gamblers were specifically interviewed about their experiences of withdrawal (in a 2002 issue of Social Psychological Review).


Young woman lead climbing in cave, male climber belaying

Heirene’s team used semi-structured interviews to explore withdrawal experiences of what they defined as ‘high ability’ and ‘average-ability’ male rock climbers during periods of abstinence (four climbers in each of the two groups). They then investigated the behavioural and psychological and aspects of withdrawal (including craving, anhedonia [i.e., the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities], and negative affect) and examined the differences in the frequency and intensity of these states between the two rock climbing groups. Based on an analysis of the interview transcripts, they found support for the existence of anhedonia, craving, and negative affect among rock climbers. They also reported that the effects were more pronounced and intense among the high ability rock climbers (apart from anhedonic symptoms). The authors also noted:

“All participants reported negative affective experiences during abstinence, including states of “restlessness” and being “miserable,” “agitated,” or “frustrated.” Similar dysphoric states have been identified in drug users, exercise addicts, and extreme sports athletes during abstinence…In the present study, both groups reported using climbing to alleviate negative affective states, particularly stress. This finding supports previous research that has reported skydivers use their sport in a self-medicating manner (Price & Bundesen, 2005). Similarly, psychopharmacology literature has found individuals engage in substance abuse as a means of coping with stress…suggesting similar participation motives in both drug use and extreme sports”.

The study concluded that based on self-report, rock climbers experienced genuine withdrawal symptoms during abstinence from climbing and that these were comparable to individuals with substance and other behavioral addictions. In a second investigation just published in Frontiers in Psychology, the same team (this time led by Gareth Roderique-Davies) reported the development of the Rock Climbing Craving Questionnaire (RCCQ). The development of this new psychometric instrument directly followed on from the previous study which had found evidence of craving amongst the rock climbers that had been interviewed.

In the second paper, the research team attempted to “quantitatively measure the craving experienced by participants of any extreme sports”. They claimed that the RCCQ could allow “a greater understanding of the craving experienced by extreme sports athletes and a comparison of these across sports (e.g., surfing) and activities (e.g., drug-use)”. To develop the RCCQ, they utilized previously validated craving measures as a template for the new instrument to assess craving in the sports of rock-climbing and mountaineering.

The second paper comprised two studies. The first study investigated the factor structure of the craving measure among 407 climbers who completed the RCCQ. (One of the limitations of the study was that the participant sample was heterogeneous and included climbers and mountaineers from multiple primary climbing disciplines, including indoor climbing, outdoor traditional climbing, alpine climbing, and ice climbing). Despite the heterogeneity of the sample, the results demonstrated that a three-factor model explained just over half the total variance in item scores. The three factors (‘positive reinforcement’, ‘negative reinforcement’ and ‘urge to climb’) each comprised five items. The second study validated the 15-item RCCQ on 254 climbers using confirmatory factor analysis across two conditions (a ‘climbing-related cue’ condition or a ‘cue-neutral’ condition). The authors concluded that:

“[The first study supported] the multi-dimensional nature of rock climbing craving and shows parallels with substance-related craving in reflecting intention and positive (desire) and negative (withdrawal) reinforcement. [The second study confirmed] this factor structure and gives initial validation to the measure with evidence that these factors are sensitive to cue exposure…if as shown here, craving for climbing (and potentially other extreme sports) is similar to that experienced by drug-users and addicts, there is the potential that climbing and other extreme sports could be used as a replacement therapy for drug users”.

This latter suggestion has been made in the literature dating back to the 1970s and the work of Dr. Bill Glasser on ‘positive addictions’ as well as by psychologists such as Iain Brown who suggested in the early 1990s that gambling addicts should replace their addictions with sensation-seeking activities such as sky-diving and parachuting. Critics will claim that these papers are another example of ‘over-pathologizing’ everyday behaviours, but as I have always argued, if any behaviour fulfils all the core criteria for addiction, they should be operationalised as such.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brymer, E., & Schweitzer, R. (2013). Extreme sports are good for your health: a phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of health psychology, 18(4), 477-487.

Buckley, R. (2012). Rush as a key motivation in skilled adventure tourism: Resolving the risk recreation paradox. Tourism Management, 33, 961–970.

Castanier, C., Le Scanff, C., & Woodman, T. (2010). Who takes risks in high-risk sports? A typological personality approach. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 81, 478–484.

Celsi, R. L., Rose, R. L., & Leigh, T. W. (1993). An exploration of high risk leisure consumption through skydiving. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(1), 1–23.

Glasser, W. (1976). Positive Addictions. New York: Harper & Row.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. & Smeaton, M. (2002). Withdrawal in pathological gamblers: A small qualitative study. Social Psychology Review, 4, 4-13.

Heirene, R. M., Shearer, D., Roderique-Davies, G., & Mellalieu, S. D. (2016). Addiction in extreme sports: An exploration of withdrawal states in rock climbers. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5(2), 332-341.

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.

Monasterio, E., & Mei-Dan, O. (2008). Risk and severity of injury in a population of BASE jumpers. New Zealand Medical Journal, 121, 70–75.

Monasterio, E., Mulder, R., Frampton, C., & Mei-Dan, O. (2012). Personality characteristics of BASE jumpers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24, 391-400.

Price, I. R., & Bundesen, C. (2005). Emotional changes in skydivers in relation to experience. Personality and Individual Differences, 38, 1203–1211.

Roderique-Davies, G. R. D., Heirene, R. M., Mellalieu, S., & Shearer, D. A. (2018). Development and initial validation of a rock climbing craving questionnaire (RCCQ). Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 204. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00204

Willig, C. (2008). A phenomenological investigation of the experience of taking part in extreme sports. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(5), 690-702.

Thriller killer: A brief look at BASE jumping

According to (the perhaps appropriately named Dr. Matt Pain and his colleague Matthew Pain in a 2005 issue of The Lancet), extreme sports are continuing to grow in popularity. I recounted my own experiences of bungee jumping in a previous blog but even that is tame compared to BASE jumping. A fairly recent 2012 paper by Erik Monasterio, Roger Mulder, Christopher Frampton and Omer Mei-Dan examined the personality characteristics of BASE Jumpers in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology (and on which my blog today is based).

According to Monasterio and colleagues, BASE jumping developed from skydiving (using specially adapted parachutes to jump from fixed objects). The acronym ‘B.A.S.E.’ was coined in the late 1970s by filmmaker Carl Boenish, his wife Jean Boenish, Phil Smith, and Phil Mayfield, and comprises the fixed objects that such individuals can jump off (i.e., Building, Antenna, Span [arch, bridge, or dome], and Earth (a natural formation such as a cliff). According to the Zero P website, there are only about 1,000-1,500 active BASE jumpers and less than 10,000 people have ever even made a BASE jump.  Currently there are just over 1,000 people worldwide that have a BASE number. According to the Wikipedia entry, death rates from BASE jumping are high:

“BASE jumping as of 2006 has an overall fatality rate estimated at about one fatality per sixty participants. A study of 20,850 BASE jumps from the same site (the Kjerag Massif in Norway) reported 9 fatalities over the 11-year period from 1995 to 2005, or 1 in every 2,317 jumps. However, at that site, 1 in every 254 jumps over that period resulted in a nonfatal accident. BASE jumping is one of the most dangerous recreational activities in the world, with a fatality and injury rate 43 times higher than parachuting from a plane. As of 29 March 2014 the ‘BASE Fatality List’ maintained by ‘’ records 228 deaths for BASE jumping since April 1981”.

Erk Monasterio and Omer Mei-Dan published a previous paper in the New Zealand Medical Journal and noted that BASE jumping was associated with a five- to 16-fold risk for death or injury when compared with skydiving. Monasterio and colleagues also reported that 72% of experienced BASE jumpers “had witnessed the death or serious injury of other participants in the sport in which 76% had at least one-near miss incident and only 6% had not sustained an injury, near-miss or witnessed a fatality from BASE jumping”. Consequently they argued that it was unsurprising widespread belief that “BASE jumpers are in some way unusual”.

Given how dangerous the sport is, Monasterio and his colleagues carried out the first ever research study into the personalities of BASE jumpers, and whether such personality factors play any contributing role in why BASE jumpers do what they do. Previous research into personality and extreme sports was summarized. Below is Monasterio et al’s summary with all but two of the academic papers cited removed:

“A number of studies have investigated the relationship between personality traits and participation in high-risk physical sports; sensation-seeking is by far the most consistently studied personality factor in the literature. Most of these studies have found that participants in high-risk sports tend to score higher on Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking (SS) Scale compared to low risk sports participants and control groups. Zuckerman (1983) defines sensation seeking as ‘the need for varied, novel and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience’. In addition, a smaller number of studies have also considered other personality variables such as neuroticism, extraversion and conscientiousness. Castanier et al. (2010) investigated 302 men involved in high-risk sports (downhill skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing, paragliding, and skydiving) and found that personality types with a configuration of low conscientiousness combined with high extraversion and/or high neuroticism were greater risk-takers”.

What the majority of research studies examining relationships between extreme risk-taking sports and personality have done is investigate the role of sensation seeking. In Monasterio and colleagues’ view, the research carried out to date is “far too narrow as it only provides information about one aspect of personality and ignores other important personality factors that may contribute to participation in risk-taking sports and help to understand the motivation for sports risk-taking behavior in general”. Therefore, the aim of their study was to explore the possible psychobiological contribution to BASE jumping using the temperament and character inventory (TCI) developed by Dr. Robert Cloninger and colleagues in 1994.

For those of you that don’t know, the TCI is a self-report personality questionnaire that assesses both normal and abnormal variation in temperament and character. Monasterio and colleagues assessed their sample of BASE jumpers using the TCI-235 (a self-report questionnaire with 235 items assessing seven basic dimensions of temperament and character). The following text about the seven dimensions and definitions of temperament and character are taken verbatim from the paper:

“Temperament refers to the automatic emotional responses that are thought to be moderately heritable, independent, genetically homogenous and stable over time. There are four temperament dimensions:

  • Novelty seeking (a tendency to activate or initiate new behaviors with a propensity to seek out new or novel experiences, impulsive decision-making, extravagance, quick loss of temper, and active avoidance of frustration).
  • Harm avoidance (a tendency to inhibit behaviors with a propensity to worry in anticipation of future problems, fear of uncertainty, rapid fatigability, and shyness in the company of strangers).
  • Reward dependence (a tendency to maintain behaviors manifested by dependency on the approval of others, social attachments, and sentimentality).
  • Persistence (a tendency to be hard-working, industrious, and persistent despite frustration and fatigue

Character refers to self-concepts and individual differences in goals and values that can be influenced by social factors, learning, and the process of maturation. The character dimensions are as follows:

  • Self-directedness (which refers to self-determination, personal integrity, self-integrity, and willpower).
  • Cooperativeness (which refers to individual differences in identification with and acceptance of other people).
  • Self-transcendence (which refers to feelings of religious faith, or viewing oneself as an integral part of the universe in other ways.”

Monasterio and colleagues hypothesized that BASE jumpers would score high on Novelty Seeking and score low on Harm Avoidance (compared to control data). To be included in the study sample, BASE jumpers had to have made at least ten BASE jumps, and been BASE jumping for over six months. The sample participants were recruited from international BASE jump group meetings, adventure website forums, and from personal communication among the international BASE jumping community. The final sample comprised 68 BASE jumpers (59 male; 39 single; mean age 34 years; 28 having sustained a significant injury from BASE jumping).

The results obtained were “partially in line” with the authors’ hypotheses. BASE jumpers did indeed have higher Novelty Seeking scores and lower Harm Avoidance scores. They also scored high on the Self Directedness dimension. However, the mean differences compared to normative data were “modest” and their findings suggested there was no “tightly defined personality profile” among their sample of BASE jumpers. The exception was that a 40% of the BASE jumpers had an extremely low Harm Avoidance score (compared to 5% of the control group). The authors concluded that the eight-fold increase in BASE jumpers suggests that: 

“A large proportion have a temperament profile characterized by low [Harm Avoidance]. The finding of low [Harm Avoidance] is not surprising or counterintuitive, as individuals with low scores on this dimension are described as carefree, relaxed, daring, courageous, composed, and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. These individuals are described as outgoing, bold, and confident. Their energy levels tend to be high, and they impress others as dynamic, lively, and vigorous. The advantages of low [Harm Avoidance] are confidence in the face of danger and uncertainty, leading to optimistic and energetic efforts with little or no distress. The disadvantages are related to unresponsiveness to danger, which can lead to foolhardy optimism…In order to participate in extreme sports such as BASE jumping, participants require highly developed skills that can only be acquired by repeated and consistent practice over time, and after undergoing a fairly rigorous apprenticeship. As [Self Directedness] refers to self-determination and maturity, or the ability of an individual to control, regulate and adapt behavior to fit the situation in accord with individually chosen goals and values, it is unsurprising that BASE jumpers scored high on this measure. High [Self Directedness] with an emphasis on discipline and skill acquisition may also help to explain why BASE jumpers engage in risk taking behaviors by normative rather than impulsive/disorganized antisocial means (such as drug use and criminal behavior). Previous research has shown that a combination of high [Novelty Seeking] and low [Harm Avoidance] increases the risk of drug use”.

Despite the interesting findings, there were lots of methodological limitations in the study. The sample was very small (although the authors argued that it was relatively large given the small number of worldwide BASE jumpers – in fact they claimed it included 5-10% of all the world’s BASE jumpers), self-selected (i.e., not random), and relied on self-report (which is not always the most reliable testimony). The authors also pointed out that:

“All participants who volunteered were included. This may have led to selection bias and the sample may represent a population of particularly high-risk-taking BASE jumpers as 42% had suffered serious injury and 72% had witnessed fatality or serious accident, yet persisted in the sport. BASE jumpers who had experienced prior accidents may have been more motivated to share their experience and therefore more likely to participate in the study. As the study included only active jumpers, cautious BASE jumpers, who had given up the sport following an injury or a near-miss experience, may have been excluded. Alternatively, the sampling process may have excluded particularly high-risk groups as less experienced, more impulsive and higher risk taking jumpers may have been involved in fatal accidents at earlier stages of their BASE jumping careers and therefore were unavailable for inclusion in the study…An added limitation may be the forced-choice nature of the TCI questionnaire in which participants score either true or false for each question, whereas the answer may lie somewhere in the middle”.

Despite the limitations, the study is the first of its kind and provides a benchmark on which other studies can build. Engagement in extreme sports is likely to continue despite the high risk of injury or death. Knowing as much as we can about why people engage in such risky behaviour is clearly of great value psychologically.

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

Further reading

Castanier, C., Le Scanff, C., & Woodman, T. (2010). Who takes risks in high-risk sports? A typological personality approach. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 81, 478–484.

Cloninger, C. R., Przybeck, T. R., Svrakic, D. M., & Wetzel, R. D. (1994a). Basic description of the personality scales. In C. R. Cloninger (Ed.), The Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI): A guide to its development and use (pp. 19–27). St Louis, MO: Center for Psychobiology of Personality, Washington University.

Monasterio, E., & Mei-Dan, O. (2008). Risk and severity of injury in a population of BASE jumpers. New Zealand Medical Journal, 121, 70–75.

Monasterio, E., Mulder, R., Frampton, C., & Mei-Dan, O. (2012). Personality characteristics of BASE jumpers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24, 391-400

Pain, M.T., & Pain, M.A. (2005). Essay: Risk taking in sport. Lancet, 366, Suppl 1, S33–34.

Zuckerman, M. (1983). Sensation seeking and sports. Personality and Individual Differences, 4, 285–294.

Zuckerman, M., & Cloninger, C. R. (1996). Relationship between Cloninger’s, Zuckerman’s and Eysenck’s dimensions of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 21, 283–285.