Skydivers have adventurous spirit in their genes, but it is hard to detect | University of Tartu

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Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
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Faculty of Science and Technology
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Vanemuise 46–208, 51014 Tartu
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    Riia 23b, 51010 Tartu
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Institutions
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Support Units
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Contacts of UT units

Faculty of Arts and Humanities
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5341
Faculty address: 
Jakobi 2, rooms 116–121, 51005 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    + 372 737 5341
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, rooms 116–121, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of History and Archaeology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5651
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5221
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5314
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 2, rooms 309–352, 51005 Tartu
  • Institute of Cultural Research
    Faculty phone: 
    (+372) 737 5223
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 16, 51003 Tartu
  • School of Theology and Religious Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5301
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18–310, 50090 Tartu
  • College of Foreign Languages and Cultures
    Faculty address: 
    J. Liivi 4, 50409, Tartu
  • Viljandi Culture Academy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 435 5232
    Faculty address: 
    Posti 1, 71004 Viljandi
Faculty of Social Sciences
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5957
Faculty address: 
Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    + 372 737 5900
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Education
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6440
    Faculty address: 
    Salme 1a–29, 50103 Tartu
  • Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5582
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36–301, 51003 Tartu
  • School of Economics and Business Administration
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6310
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 18, 51009 Tartu
  • Institute of Psychology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5902
    Faculty address: 
    Näituse 2, 50409 Tartu
  • School of Law
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5390
    Faculty address: 
    Näituse 20–324, 50409 Tartu
  • Institute of Social Studies
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5188
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 36, 51003 Tartu
  • Narva College
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 740 1900
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 2, 20307 Narva
  • Pärnu College
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 445 0520
    Faculty address: 
    Ringi 35, 80012 Pärnu
Faculty of Medicine
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5326
Faculty address: 
Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5326
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4210
    Faculty address: 
    Biomeedikum, Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Pharmacy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5286
    Faculty address: 
    Nooruse 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Dentistry
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 731 9856
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 6, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Clinical Medicine
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5323
    Faculty address: 
    L. Puusepa 8, 50406 Tartu
  • Institute of Family Medicine and Public Health
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4190
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 19, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5360
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 5–205, 51005 Tartu
Faculty of Science and Technology
Faculty phone: 
+372 737 5820
Faculty address: 
Vanemuise 46–208, 51014 Tartu
  • Dean's Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5820
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46–208, 51003 Tartu
  • Institute of Computer Science
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5445
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 18, 51009 Tartu
  • Estonian Marine Institute
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 671 8902
    Faculty address: 
    Mäealuse 14, 12618 Tallinn
  • Institute of Physics
    Faculty address: 
    W. Ostwaldi 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Chemistry
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5261
    Faculty address: 
    Ravila 14a, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Genomics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4000
    Faculty address: 
    Riia 23b, 51010 Tartu
  • Institute of Mathematics and Statistics
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5860
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 18, 51009 Tartu
  • Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5027
    Faculty address: 
    Riia 23, 23b–134, 51010 Tartu
  • Tartu Observatory
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4510
    Faculty address: 
    Observatooriumi 1, Tõravere, 61602 Tartumaa
  • Institute of Technology
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4800
    Faculty address: 
    Nooruse 1, 50411 Tartu
  • Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5835
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46, 51003 Tartu
Institutions
  • Library
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5702
    Faculty address: 
    W. Struve 1, 50091 Tartu
  • Youth Academy
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5581
    Faculty address: 
    Uppsala 10, 51003 Tartu
  • Museum
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5674
    Faculty address: 
    Lossi 25, 51003 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6076
    Faculty address: 
    Vanemuise 46, 51003 Tartu
Support Units
  • Administrative Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5606
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 4809
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 18, 51009, Tartu
  • University Office in Tallinn
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6600
    Faculty address: 
    Teatri väljak 3, 10143 Tallinn
  • Estates Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5137
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Finance Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5125
    Faculty address: 
    Jakobi 4, 51005 Tartu
  • Grant Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6215
    Faculty address: 
    Raekoja plats 9, 51004 Tartu
  • Information Technology Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6000, IT-help: +372 737 5500
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Human Resources Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5145
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 302 and 304, 50090 Tartu
  • Internal Audit Office
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18-244, 51005 Tartu
  • International Cooperation and Protocol Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6123
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 104, 301, 305, 50090 Tartu
  • Marketing and Communication Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5687
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, rooms 102, 104, 209, 210, 50090 Tartu
  • Office of Academic Affairs
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5620
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • Procurement Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 6632
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18a, 51005 Tartu
  • Rector's Strategy Office
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5600
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • Student Council
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18b, 51005 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Press
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5945
    Faculty address: 
    W. Struve 1, 50091 Tartu
Other Units
  • University of Tartu Academic Sports Club
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5371
    Faculty address: 
    Ujula 4, 51008 Tartu
  • Tartu Student Village
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 740 9959
    Faculty address: 
    Narva mnt 25, 51013 Tartu
  • Tartu Students’ Club
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 730 2400
    Faculty address: 
    Kalevi 24, 51010 Tartu
  • Tartu University Hospital
    Faculty address: 
    L. Puusepa 1a, 50406 Tartu
  • University of Tartu Foundation
    Faculty phone: 
    +372 737 5852
    Faculty address: 
    Ülikooli 18, 50090 Tartu
  • View all other units

Skydivers have adventurous spirit in their genes, but it is hard to detect

People take all sorts of risks every day: dangerous overtaking on roads, investing, eating new and interesting foods, and so on. But the need for excitement and adventure varies from person to person. Researchers from the University of Tartu Institute of Psychology collaborated with their colleagues from the Estonian Genome Centre to study people’s risk-taking behaviour which is oriented toward feeling excitement.

A research team led by Anu Realo, currently a Professor at the University of Warwick and member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, examined in depth the people’s detailed personality profiles and studied whether excitement-oriented risk-taking is somehow linked to genes. The study had two main objectives: to find a set of personality traits most strongly associated with risk-taking behaviour, and find out whether genes determine the extent to which people seek excitement in their life.

The sample of the study included people who had made at least one solo parachute jump. Liisi Ausmees, Research Fellow in Personality and Social Psychology at the University of Tartu, says that the study of skydivers is a good way to learn about the causes and links of adventurousness and risky behaviour. 

The sample consisted of 298 Estonian skydivers of 16–69 years of age, 35% of them were women. The skydivers’ genetic and personality data were compared with those of the 298 members in the control group, who matched in terms of age, gender, and educational level. These data were obtained from the biobank. 

Comparing a group of people with a disease or an extreme trait with a control group who does not have the same disease or trait is a common practice in genetic research, as it allows to compare the frequency of genetic variants.

In this study, researchers looked in the skydivers’ DNA samples for gene combinations that would explain their urge to jump out of the airplane. Also, the involvement of the control group enabled to more accurately identify the skydivers’ personal traits, as both the skydrivers and the control group had completed a comprehensive personality questionnaire.

The comparison of skydivers and the control group revealed that the former had a distinctive personality profile – in addition to higher adventurousness the skydivers were more active, liberal and open to different experiences. They were also more stable emotionally, i.e. less anxious and less vulnerable than members of the control group. As an interesting finding, Ausmees pointed out that although the skydivers were not more impulsive than the control group, they were still somewhat prone to do things without careful consideration. “This suggests that skydivers are spontaneous but they do not have problems with self-control,” she said.

However, not everyone who is emotionally stable, open, active and enjoys excitement will go skydiving. To get to the really deep reasons for people to skydive, the researchers analysed the differences in personality profiles between the members of the two groups at the most detailed level, across 240 items of the personality questionnaire.

The researchers compared the responses to identify the specific statements or personality traits that most differentiated the skydivers from the control group. These eight most important traits were referred to as skydiving-related personality markers (SPM) and were grouped into SPM score. In this score, the best predictors of willingness to skydive are the enjoyment of risky and exciting situations, the ability to resist one’s cravings, the tendency of letting imaginagion fly, being liberal in moral principles and not feeling helpless.

The same score was later used by the researchers in the second part of the study, where they analysed the personality and genetic data from more than 3,000 gene donors who were not known to have skydived. They found that people with higher skydiving personality scores were more active physically and, to some extent, also psychologically healthier than people with lower scores. “However, people with higher SPM scores were more likely to suffer from traumatic injuries, which may indirectly indicate an adventurous and active lifestyle,” said Liisi Ausmees.

The most important “candidate genes”, i.e. genetic polymorphisms that have been previously related to adventurousness, in the skydivers and controls were compared. Although some genetic differences could be detected, the associations were not strong enough to suggest a causal effect of a particular gene. In the case of personality traits, which are multifaceted by nature, the genetic background is likely to be highly complex. Probably many genes and their interaction also play a role in adventurousness.

Anu Realo said that parachute jumping is just one possible way to satisfy one’s thirst for experience. The results of the study show that people who go skydiving rather tend to be emotionally more stable, less impulsive and more opened to new experiences.

The research study grew out of a master’s thesis written at the University of Tartu Institute of Psychology by Maie Talts.  She is an experienced skydiver, who made her first jump 21 years ago.

Both Talts’ mother and brother have made one parachute jump. “Therefore, it is possible that genes have some influence on my sense of adventure,” she admitted. However, her mother and brother jumped only after Maie had already started skydiving. So, it is also possible that they took up the activity mainly under Maie’s influence or following her example.

Environment has its influence

Tõnu Esko, Professor of Human Genomics at the University of Tartu, said that actually it is not that simple that if parents are excitement-seeking, the child would inevitably inherit the same trait. Beside the genes, also the environment in which you grow plays a big role. “How much does genetics influence us and how much environment, however, is hard to say,” Esko said.

“As children, we are like our parents for many reasons: on the one hand, we have our parents’ genes, but on the other, we get our attitude to life from home. If the parents are constantly trying out new things, like skydiving, for example – as children, we take on the same habits from home.” This is only true, however, if no deep trauma is involved, which could make the person consciously avoid the activity.
                
Professor Esko said, as an example, that intelligence is also seen as inherited, but no one will get to the university or become a professor without schooling. Thus, an environment that supports learning is definitely a big influence.
                
The overall message of this research, according to Esko, is that people are different – both in terms of where and how they grew up, and because of the combination of their genes. “If your life partner is a sensation-seeking person, there is not much chance that he or she would change, so you just have to put up with it,” he said.

The research article was published in the European Journal of Personality, the authors were Liisi Ausmees, Maie Talts, Jüri Allik, Uku Vainik, Timo Tõnis Sikka, Tiit Nikopensius, Tõnu Esko and Anu Realo.

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