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Daredevils Fit To A `T` Driving Forces Of Thrill-seeking

|By Connie Zweig. (copyright) 1987, Connie Zweig. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

During the last year Milwaukee journalist Roger Salick has skydived from 12,500 feet, flown into the eye of a hurricane aboard a weather reconnaissance plane, raced a hydroplane at 60 miles an hour with his face 18 inches above water and saddled a bucking buffalo. Salick embodies what University of Wisconsin psychologist Frank Farley calls a Type T personality, a perpetual risk-taker and avid adventurer whose life is molded by the thrill factor. Farley believes the same mechanism that motivates people like Salick to perform reckless and death-defying feats also may explain other risk-taking behavior, both good and bad: why people win the Nobel prize; become wealthy entrepreneurs or juvenile delinquents; or drive under the influence of alcohol. Salick, who writes a column called Thrillseeker for the Milwaukee Journal`s Sunday magazine, asks readers to pose daring challenges for him to attempt. At the world championships for off-road racing, for instance, someone proposed that Salick accompany a driver in a race. ``This is the most violent mechanized sport I`ve tried,`` he says. ``We were in giant trucks with 16 shocks (shock absorbers), going 100 m.p.h. on a dirt track. We collided with another truck at 90 m.p.h. He lost control, and we hit him broadside. He rolled over, and my driver just kept going, didn`t even hit the brakes. It`s when I`m pushed beyond the familiar parameters, when I don`t know the outcome, that I get a visceral rush, a real kick,`` Salick says. But Farley has another explanation: ``Type T`s are predisposed to pursue adventure because they actually need more stimulation than the rest of us to get revved up.`` According to the bearded investigator, who also conducts a monthly seminar on psychology trends for members of the U.S. Congress, it seems that the human brain seeks to maintain an optimal level of activity, called arousal. ``If arousal is too high or too low,`` Farley says, ``we try to adjust it to a middle ground. We do this unconsciously, of course, by choosing environments or experiences that are either soothing or stimulating. Type T`s may be born with a low ability to become aroused. They are typically not too responsive to stimuli.`` Besides genetic makeup, Farley speculates that there are a number of variables that help form the Type T personality: birth and early-infancy experiences--exposing a child to, say, early swimming lessons or a lot of visual or tactile stimulation; the type of food in the home--feeding a child too much sugar or protein; and the effects of hormones such as testosterone. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Type t (little t) personality. These people try to keep stimulation to a minimum, clinging to certainty and dreaming of a pension after retirement. Based on his studies, Farley estimates that Type T`s make up about 25 percent of the population. ``There are more big T`s than little t`s,`` he says. ``And the big T`s exert an inordinate amount of creative influence in our society.`` Critics of his theory argue that typing people merely pigeonholes them. The nuances and complexity of human behavior can`t be explained this simply. ``But this is not a typology,`` Farley is quick to point out. ``It`s a continuum, and Type T is toward one end.`` Farley and his colleagues have studied hundreds of people, using both physiological measures of arousal--skin-resistance tests, perception tests --and psychological measures of arousal. Farley uses standard maze tests and personality questionnaires (``I would rather be a cowboy/cowgirl than a shepherd``; ``I have a strong need for excitement``). When a Type T person is given a booklet of maze tests, for instance, he usually varies his route through each maze. The Type t personality, however, follows the same course through each maze. Farley also has developed an index of the arousal value of mental and physical stimuli--works of art, natural and manmade environments, crimes and sexual activities. He can tell if the Type T person is more of a physical thrill-seeker or a mental risk-taker. Journalist Salick and daredevil Evel Knievel are examples of the physical thrill seeker. Mental type T`s--artists, scientists and entertainers--pursue novel ideas and move easily from one thinking mode to another, such as from the abstract to the concrete. He calls this skill ``transmutative thinking``-- a characteristic of many Nobel prize-winners, who derive intense stimulation from their investigations. ``What distinguishes anyone engaged in intellectual pursuits from real mental T`s,`` Farley says, ``is the amount of mental risk involved, the degree to which they pursue novelty and the unknown.`` Mental T`s and physical T`s share a common cluster of traits. They have more experimental tastes, prefer novelty to routine, thrive on conflict and perform extremely well in unstructured work situations. They enjoy more variety in their sex lives and report that they are happier than Type t`s.