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Running with the Bulls

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 14th 2008

group of bullsDuring my sedate Sunday afternoon, as I sipped on a strong cup of coffee (very bold and daring!) and worked on my laptop outdoors (living on the edge!), I read an article and watched a dramatic news clip about the annual early morning running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain (the San Fermin festival). On the fourth day of this festival, a man was gored and six others taken to hospital for head injuries, internal injuries, and various cuts and bruises. Other runners on different days (the bulls run 7 mornings in a row) have been gored, suffered a collapsed lung, ruptured a spleen, and broken a few ribs.

Historical archives suggest that these bull runnings have occurred at least as far back as the late thirteenth century. Fourteen runners have died from participating in this event since record-keeping began in 1924. As I fastidiously re-applied my SPF 20 sunblock, I found myself pondering the reasons why grown adults would don white clothing and red neckties, and charge madly down narrow windy Spanish streets while being pursued by 1700 pound beasts with very large horns. Even more puzzling (or interesting, depending on your viewpoint) is the fact that so many people are running amidst the bulls that the participants must pay special attention to avoid colliding with or being trampled by other runners.

Not surprisingly, psychologists would classify bull running into a category of "risk taking behavior," alongside skydiving, bungee jumping, etc. One of the main reasons why people engage in physically risky behavior is that they enjoy the physical body sensations that are associated with it. These situations trigger the so-called fight or flight response, which "ramps up our body" to deal with potentially stressful and challenging situations. Various body chemicals that are secreted during this fight or flight response (cortisol, glucose, epinephrine, norepinephrine, endorphins and enkephalins) boost energy levels, sharpen attention, quicken the thinking process, speed up reaction time, and enhance a sense of well-being.

Interestingly, rather than dreading these physical sensations, and feeling crippled by negative levels of anxiety, people who enjoy risky behaviors think about these situations in a positive way. People who enjoy risky behaviors tend to perceive bull running (and other similar situations) and the associated body arousal as exciting and desirable. The event itself (and other similar events) is viewed as challenging rather than threatening, and is therefore seen a positive rather than negative.

Certain kinds of people are more likely to engage in risk taking behavior than others. Research suggests that some people who engage in risky behaviors have high levels of a personality trait that psychologists call "Sensation Seeking." Individuals high in the Sensation Seeking trait tend to be highly adventuresome and inquisitive, and frequently seek out new, exciting, and intense experiences.

Studies involving identical twins that are reared apart suggest that a large proportion of the personality trait of Sensation Seeking is genetically determined (approximately 60%). In other words, some pepole are born with a tendency to engage in risky behaviors because of the pleasure they receive from them. On average, men tend to be higher in Sensation Seeking than women, and Sensation Seeking also tends to decline with age.

Here's a video clip of one day of this year's running of the bulls⟨=eng. Disclaimer: people fall and seem to be trampled, but there is no blood or gore.

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