Remember The Titan: Why Do Super-Rich People Take Such Crazy Risks?
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Earlier: CEO of Doomed Submarine Going To Titanic Didn’t Want To Hire ’50-Year-Old White Guys’ Because They’re Not ’Inspirational’

The world was ghoulishly captivated recently by the fate of the shoddily built Titan submersible, which imploded while exploring the Titanic’s murky grave 12,500 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic. Five people were killed: three wealthy passengers, who had paid $250,000 each; the pilot, Stockton Rush, CEO and founder of trip sponsor OceanGate Expeditions; and Paul-Henry Nargeolet, a renowned French deep-sea explorer and Titanic exploration veteran [Tribute paid to Titan five killed in ‘catastrophic implosion’ on ocean floor, by Sophie Tanno et al., CNN, June 23, 2023]. The other three victims: Pakistani tycoon Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, along with British businessman and aviator-adventurer Hamish Harding. Yet in all the news coverage, no one asked a simple question: Are the super-rich simply more inclined to expose themselves to life-threatening peril? My answer: Yes.

Look at what Rush and Harding said and did before the trip.

Here is Rush, on the subject of safety and “breaking the rules”:

You know, at some point, safety just is pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed. Don’t get in your car. Don’t do anything. At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk/reward question. I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules.

[Back to Titanic Part 1, Unsung Science with David Pogue, Season 2, Episode 17]

He was wrong about that.

Harding was an adrenaline junkie who not only went into space but also explored Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench at 36,000 feet, a Guinness record. “If something goes wrong, you are not coming back,” he told a reporter of that voyage [Hamish Harding, an Explorer Who Knew No Bounds, Dies at 58, by Alex Williams, New York Times, June 22, 2023].

As for Harding’s trip on the Titan, “I told him he shouldn’t get in that damn sub,” said Victor Vescovo, the man who plunged to Challenger Deep with him. Harding “decided to roll the dice,” Vescovo said [A friend of Titan passenger Hamish Harding says the billionaire ‘decided to roll the dice’ because he was ‘set’ on seeing the Titanic, by Jyoti Mann, Insider, June 23, 2023].

Here’s what the psychology literature says about such individuals.

Generally, humans vary on five key personality traits, known as the “Big Five,” that can be remembered with the acronym, OCEAN:

  • Openness to experience; seeking novelty and the unusual;
  • Conscientiousness; impulse control and rule-following;
  • Extraversion: feeling positive feeling strongly, craving stimulation and thus taking risks in pursuit of it;
  • Agreeableness; altruism and empathy; and,
  • Neuroticism; feeling negative feelings strongly, such as anxiety or anger.

[Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, by Daniel Nettle, Oxford University Press, 2009]

Each trait comprises even narrower sub-traits such as “politeness” or “jealousy.” Those who simply have high socioeconomic status tend to have high “General Factor of Personality.” They attain high scores in the sub-traits of each of the Big 5 that make you “socially effective.” They are relatively high in Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, empathy and, to some extent, social anxiety [The General Factor of Personality (GFP) as social effectiveness: Review of the literature, by Dimitri van der Linden et al., Personality and Individual Differences, September 30, 2016].

So even the reasonably wealthy, being high in Extraversion, are big risk-takers who chase the positive reward of the stimulation and dopamine hit that risk provides them. Their openness to novelty makes them feel the same way: It triggers dopamine and adrenaline [The neuromodulator of exploration: A unifying theory of the role of dopamine in personality, by Colin DeYoung, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, November 14, 2013].

A specific study of the super-rich found the relationship even more pronounced. They are extremely high in openness and extraversion compared to the general population. Their need for the stimulation associated with entrepreneurial risk-taking not only helps them make money but also makes them attracted to extraordinarily dangerous and superficially bizarre adventures.

They are also low in agreeableness. That endows them with the killer instinct that helps them rise to the top of the business world, yet also suggests they are unlikely to say to themselves, “I’d best not go this fantastically dangerous jaunt, it might worry my wife and children.” They are also very low in neuroticism, so they don’t worry much about the consequences of their risks [Extroverted, but not neurotic: Here’s how the ultra-wealthy score on personality tests, by Taylor Nicole Rogers, Business Insider, September 14, 2019].

So, simply from the modal personality type of the super-rich, we can understand why something as manifestly minacious as a voyage to the bottom of the sea in a tiny, relatively untested craft would be attractive.

But here’s even more to their spirit of adventure than that. They want to “feel alive,” as the old saying goes.

Some evidence shows that we “feel alive” under stress, particularly in a life-threatening endeavor. Under this kind of stress, we are in an “evolutionary match” with our own past. For most of human history, everyone was surrounded by death and disaster. So when we are exposed to what is known as “mortality salience,” or just extreme stress more generally, evolutionary instincts kick in.

These include belief in God, belief that everything is connected and has meaning, a desire to have children and name those children after ourselves so that we somehow live on [The origin and evolution of religious pro-sociality, by A. Norenzayan and A. Shariff, Science, October 3, 2008]. Wealthy people tend to be less stressed, which means they are less instinctive and life seems less meaningful. Hence, wealth causally makes people want fewer children [The evolved psychological mechanisms of fertility motivation: hunting for causation in a sea of correlation, by L. McAllister et al., Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society, April 19, 2016]. 

Perhaps creating mortality salience for themselves—risking their lives in dangerous adventures—provides the extremely rich with the sense of meaning they might lack.

Similarly, researchers have studied the effect of watching horror movies, which create the feeling of being in a dangerous, life-threatening situation. Such situations boost adrenaline, crucial for the stimulation-craving extravert, but also imbue viewers with a sense of meaning. Viewers report a sense of “personal growth” in response to watching scary movies [The psychological benefits of scary play in three types of horror fans, by Cotlan Scrivner et al., Journal of Media Psychology, 2023]. They stimulate a sense that life is real, that one is truly “alive.”

Unfortunately for the Titan’s ill-fated passengers, this desire to feel “alive” cost them their lives. But their adventure should not be dismissed as a wasteful, vanity project for people who have too much money and therefore deserve a bigger tax bill, as one British-Asian journalist wrote [Boris Johnson hits out at ‘lefties’ questioning Titanic sub trip: ‘They are heroes,’ Independent, June 23, 2023].

They likely “had everything” because of the personality traits that led them to their doom.   

Edward Dutton (email him | Tweet him) is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Asbiro University, Łódź, Poland.  You can see him on his Jolly Heretic video channels on YouTube and Bitchute. His books are available on his home page here.

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