Mary gets up, goes to the kitchen and puts on a pot of coffee. Ben bails out of an airplane at 2,000 feet -- just for the fun of it.
Who's at risk here?
They both are. We all are. Maybe the Surgeon General should issue a new warning: "Caution! Living Is Dangerous to Your Health!"
Everything we do, from the time we get up to the moment we go to bed, involves risk -- with or without our knowledge. Experts agree that we spend much, if not most, of our time taking and avoiding risks.
"People," says Eugene, Ore., psychologist Paul Slovic, "respond to hazards they perceive. There is risk everywhere and I think our whole society is dedicated to the notion that we should be aware of them."
And who can blame them? Every day a new danger is reported: radiation hazards, toxic food additives, occupational disease, acid rain, air pollution and harmful side effects from certain medications.
This, says Slovic, has caused people to be more casual about risks connected with voluntary activities than with those perceived to be imposed on them by others. For example: Nonsmokers are far from passive when it comes to "passive smoke"; smokers, on the other hand, voluntarily continue their habit even though they know they risk illness or death.
What's unusual about this, says Slovic, who also is a former president of the Society for Risk Analysis, is that we often are more concerned with low-probability risks than we are with relatively high-risk hazards.
Often, people are aware of the relatively high risks associated with a given voluntary activity and they do it anyway.
Some people may be drawn to relatively high-risk activities -- hang-gliding or sport parachuting -- because they are aware of the risk level. In 1982, there were 13 fatalities among approximately 30,000 hang-gliding enthusiasts -- 1 death per 2,308 participants -- and in 1983, 29 of approximately 35,000 sport parachutists -- 1 in 1,207 -- died in parachuting mishaps.
Such risk-takers, says Frank Farley, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, are Type T (thrill-seeking) personalities. "They live for thrills, risks and excitement."
Furthermore, says Farley, there are two types of T's:
* T-Plus -- "heavily represented among our most creative scientists, artists and entertainers, and are associated with the constructive, healthy, and growth aspects of our culture."
* T-Minus -- "individuals associated with the destructive, unhealthy aspects of our culture -- crime, violence, drinking-and-driving."
Occasionally, says Farley, a T-Plus can become a T-Minus: "John Belushi," says Farley, "was highly creative and took enormous risks in his field. He was one of the best people at improvisational comedy, a very high-risk enterprise. He may have drifted over into a T-Minus. He got into drugs -- the down side of this T personality -- and it destroyed him."
The majority of us, however, are non-T's, leading relatively quiet, predictable lives. But even non-T's can go to extremes. Agoraphobics, for example, are so afraid of what they may encounter outside, they rarely leave their homes -- which may be a bigger risk:
According to the National Safety Council, household accidents kill approximately 20,000 people and injure around 23.5 million people, 5.5 million of them seriously, every year.