As this month’s cover suggests, mountain climbing is one of the recreational activities of Doug Kelley, the court-appointed receiver of the assets of Tom Petters, the jailed business operator who appears to have risked his fortune, reputation, family, and freedom for a fraud-funded decade of dissipation. (A jury will be obligated to presume Petters innocent; you and I are under no such injunction.) A second of Kelley’s hobbies is climbing frozen waterfalls.
For most of us, the appeal of scaling rock and ice is no more explicable than the appeal of bilking investors. Of the two activities, mountain climbing has been more thoroughly studied.
Among the first behavioral psychologists to explore the attraction of risk taking was James Lester, now a retired psychotherapist in Annapolis, Maryland, whose studies focused most tightly on mountaineers. In 1963, Lester accompanied the first successful American expedition to scale Mount Everest and later analyzed the personalities of those who had been drawn to the most demanding levels of mountain climbing.
For some time, his descriptions of the appeal of climbing seemed facile: “Everything seems to be more dramatic and more vivid when you are risking your life,” he told the Harvard Crimson in 1975. “[Climbers] would rather experience life deeply than have a bland life that lasts long.”
In 1983, however, he reported in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology that his climbing companions 20 years earlier had exhibited “considerable restlessness, dislike of routine, desire for autonomy, a tendency to be dominant in personal relationships, and a lack of interest in social interaction for its own sake.” He concluded that the appeal of climbing is rooted in two contradictory impulses: to assert oneself (by overcoming a challenge while being in touch with one’s own internal resources) and to escape from oneself—particularly from one’s worries and self-doubts: “The devotee of climbing seems . . . to exemplify often the most exquisitely balanced struggle between ‘proving’ and ‘losing’ self, with every action serving both ends.”
Neuroscientists have a more prosaic explanation. Less than a year ago, scientists at University College London declared that humans’ sense of adventure comes from a primitive area of the brain called the ventral striatum. In a study headed by Dr. Bianca Wittman, sophisticated electronic scans showed that the region was activated when people chose unfamiliar options.
Seeking new and unfamiliar experiences is a “fundamental behavioral tendency” in humans and animals, Wittman reported. “It makes sense to try new options, as they may prove advantageous in the long run. For example, a monkey who chooses to deviate from its diet of bananas, even if this involves moving to an unfamiliar part of the forest, may find its diet enriched and more nutritious.”
It is of such propensity for risk taking that great consumer marketing campaigns are created—and upon which enterprises are built. The enterprises can be legitimate and beneficent; they can also be criminal.
In a 1985 book called The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, Richard Slotkin, a former Wesleyan University professor, noted that in popular American mythology, such notably individualistic adventurers as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie share characteristics with modern business operators. The “virtues” of the hunter/explorer/frontier fighter, he says, “are primarily those of the entrepreneur, the man on the make.”
“He is self-willed and self-motivated,” Slotkin wrote. “He stretches the boundaries of society and law by following the dictates of private will and ambition. He is a man of exploit, not of patient labor; a predator before he is a cultivator. He achieves and accumulates not through drudgery and self-denial; but by seeking gratification in adventure, through dramatic discovery, and through struggle with a great antagonist.”
“Whether seen explicitly as frontiersman or as an entrepreneur within the metropolis, this sort of character is both useful and dangerous. He is constantly going beyond bounds of custom and even law; and while he attains results that may be beneficial, it is at the cost of calling custom and law into question.”
Why, he could be writing about Tom Petters, couldn’t he?
But by comparing Petters with American frontiersmen, aren’t we romanticizing him? Maybe, but only a little. Not so much that we’ll grieve if he receives a long prison sentence.