Why would anyone get in a submersible and travel 2½ miles deep into the ocean? An expert explains extreme risk-taking

headshot of Ajay Satpute
Ajay Satpute, assistant professor of psychology. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The price tag for the trip was reportedly $250,000. The accommodations were cramped, and the destination was roughly 2½ miles below the surface of the cold, remote North Atlantic. Then there was the liability waiver that reportedly mentioned risk of death three times on its first page alone.

What could have motivated the passengers on the submersible “Titan” to take such a risk?

“Why did that one person do that one thing in this case, it’s really hard to know,” says Ajay Satpute, an assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern University who studies fear. “But at least when it comes to the choice of rationalizing what we do, we will use many different reasons to do that.”

The “Titan” submerged Sunday morning, and its support vessel lost contact with it about an hour and 45 minutes later, according to the Coast Guard. Five people were aboard the craft, which was launched to survey the wreckage of the ocean liner Titanic. 

The missing submersible set off an international search-and-rescue mission that captivated the world’s attention. Thursday afternoon, however, the Coast Guard said that debris found earlier that morning was from the Titan and “was consistent with a catastrophic implosion of the vessel.” 

OceanGate Expeditions, a private company that organizes and runs trips on the Titan, said in a statement Thursday afternoon that it believed the passengers “have sadly been lost.”

Satpute cautioned that individuals’ motivations and decision-making can be vastly different. Moreover, psychological studies have not been conducted involving fear and deep-sea submersibles.  

“It’s hard to study some of these things because these are tragedies,” Satpute says. 

However, Satpute notes that psychologists have studied connections among fear and arousal and extreme sports participation and haunted-houses, and more. He says there are several factors that could influence a person’s decision to take such a risk.

The first is seeking that ultimate state of arousal—the perfect balance between feeling the rush of uncertainty and the comfort of safety. For example, Satpute referenced a rollercoaster ride.  

“We think it’s going to be safe, but it’s meant to introduce some uncertainty as to where the body goes next—and that is arousal building,” Satpute said.

Another possible reason is a wish to establish mastery over something that is negative—a feeling of conquering a fear or learning how to survive a negative stimulus. Do you watch a horror movie to prove to yourself that you can make it through, for instance, or see a car accident and think about what not to do when driving?

We think it’s going to be safe, but it’s meant to introduce some uncertainty as to where the body goes next—and that is arousal building.

Ajay Satpute, an assistant professor of psychology at Northeastern

“It’s something the brain might want to do,” Satpute says. “A way to learn how to survive.”

There are also issues of identity that can be associated with taking risks. Psychologists, for instance, have measured boosts to self esteem when some people put themselves through risky experiences. Or maybe there are social motives—the ability to talk about things that nobody else can talk about—or extreme risk-taking could be related to conspicuous consumption or doing something unique that confers an elite or wealthy social status.

Finally, there is seeking wonder and awe. To see the wreckage of a 20th-century ocean liner suddenly appearing in the murky depths of the ocean could certainly induce those emotions. 

Of course, not all factors are necessarily present in each person, or in each situation when they are taking a risk. Different factors may also be more prominent in one person than another.

“The motives will be person dependent and probably situation dependent,” Satpute says. 

And individuals have different reactions to stimuli. 

Do you visit the Titanic site for fun? Like a haunted house? After all, that can yield an emotional response that Satpute called the “joy of relief”—you willingly go there, feel happy but also anxious, but then afterwards your happiness increases and your anxiety goes down

“You know it’s OK,” Satpute says. 

Or do you visit the Titanic site to feel a sense of remembrance and solemnity? Like visiting the site of the 9-11 Memorial and Museum.

Or is it some of both?

“There’s so many different possibilities that we don’t know,” Satpute says.

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.moulton@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @MoultonCyrus.