Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Risky business! Are you a sensation seeker?

Much of my research and professional experience focuses upon ergonomics, workplace hazards, and traffic safety. A major component of improving public health in these realms is compliance. Well, really, that's a problem with any public health program: How do we get people to do what we want them to do? That IS the basis of our course of study, at least in the social and behavioral realm.

We generally try to avoid blaming the individual person for his or her health decisions, rather focusing on the system that fosters such choices. Systemic changes, we think, enable people to naturally make the "right" choice for themselves, or at least a well-informed "wrong" choice.

Some people, though (myself included), are just high-risk folks. I always theorize that certain professions attract social deviants:

  • If police officers weren't cops, they'd be criminals.
  • If chemists weren't working on pharmaceuticals, they would be making meth.
  • If ski patrol wasn't bombing for avalanches, they'd be arsonists.
  • If safety professionals weren't teaching safety, they'd be dead.
Here's a cool link to a self-assessment tool for determining your sensation-seeking rating (goes from "titmouse" to "adrenaline junkie").  I, consequently, fall into the highest category, which makes sense.

I feel as though I am a great public health/safety professional because I'm the most likely person to do stupid stuff. I've skied helmetless in the backcountry, ridden motorcycles at 70mph on the freeway while the driver was drunk, and raced at speeds up to 120mph on San Antonio's roads. I've worked in chemical demil facilities that had gallons of VX nerve agent in the lab hood. I have handled dangerous chemicals without gloves or protective eyewear, and I did the same with urine on more than one occasion. I SCUBA dive, ride in small planes, get on every roller coaster I see ... and yes, I've had unprotected sex. I still run with scissors (don't tell anyone). I've done it all wrong.

I have had (in the past) almost no regard for my own personal safety. Frankly, I hit age 25 and was shocked to still be around. I was lucky. Other people aren't. This is why I appreciate the importance of safety initiatives and messages; people really do get hurt. I just lived long enough to tell my story.

In other words, I am my own target audience. If you can make me change a health behavior, you can probably convince anyone.

This is a great asset, because I'm able to critically evaluate programs' ability to succeed in real life. Is the program inconvenient? Culturally insensitive? Gender-biased? Yep, I'll find any excuse to not be healthy. Which is why I'm perfect for this discipline. If I can save people from one of the horrific deaths that I narrowly avoided, then I must be fulfilling my greater destiny. And I suspect that many public health professionals can say the same.

I hope to see some comments telling me about YOUR sensation-seeking scores! It's really a fun test.

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