The Cory Lidle Tragedy: Why Take Risks?

New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle knew the risks, but friends say he simply loved to fly.

Following the plane crash that took his life some now wonder why a man who seemed to have it all -- a dream job, wealth, family -- would risk everything by choosing such a risky hobby? Some psychologists say some people may have a predisposition for risk taking.

Marvin Zuckerman, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware and author of the new book "Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior" says that such people have "a distinctive personality makeup that is the product of both genes and experience." So, is there a risk taking gene?

"Yes," Zuckerman says. "There's a genetic disposition, a rather strong one as personality traits go. Family environment doesn't seem to be too important. We inherit differences in biology -- the biology of personality."

Athletes and a 'Crocodile Hunter' on the Edge

Zuckerman says some risky behavior is related to the very human trait responsible for our survival as a species.

However, nothing so grand as the "survival of our species" was on the line for a number of high profile risk takers in recent years. "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin put himself at extreme risk so often it defined him to millions of fans around the world, right up until he was killed by a stingray underwater. Pittsburgh Steelers star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger broke his jaw and nose in a motorcycle crash in June after repeated warnings that his love for motorcycles could threaten his career. His coach warned him after another pro football player, the Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. tore knee ligaments and lost a season on the field following a motorcycle crash.

"He talked about being a risk-taker and I'm not really a risk taker. I'm pretty conservative and laid back," Roethlisberger said at the time.

The New Jersey Nets' Jay Williams is another professional athlete who nearly lost it all because of a motorcycle accident. A former national player of the year at Duke University and No. 2 pick overall by the Chicago Bulls in 2002, his career appeared to end on June 19, 2003, when he crashed his motorcycle into a light pole in Chicago, fracturing his pelvis, tearing knee ligaments and suffering nerve damage in his left leg. The damage was so severe, doctors thought they might have to amputate his leg.

Williams' teammate at the time, Marcus Fizer is quoted as warning Williams about riding a motorcycle.

"I told him before, that may not be something that you want to do in your career at this time. Any number of things can happen to you," Fizer said.

Risk Takers from All Walks of Life

Airplanes have proven especially tragic. John F. Kennedy Jr., Cory Lidle and 1970s Yankee legend Thurman Munson were all young pilots with an appetite for an exiting new hobby killed in small plane crashes. Were all of these people predisposed to risky behavior because of their celebrity? High profile publicists say it is wrong to generalize and psychologists don't think so. Zuckerman says risk takers come from all walks of life.

To some, the need is satisfied through high risk drug use or sex. And while many may think that celebrities are more prone to high risk behavior -- or that risk taking always involves adventure sports like skydiving -- experts say that is simply not the case. They say most risk takers express themselves in a very common and altogether dangerous pursuit -- high speed or reckless driving out on the roads.

So who are risk takers? A 2005 study by German researchers at the University of Bonn concluded that people who enjoy taking risks may be more content and satisfied with their lives than their peers. Further, the study actually sought to define the type of person who is most likely to become a risk taker.

For example, the research reportedly found that tall people are more prepared to take risks than short people and that women take fewer risks than men and that the willingness to take risks decreases dramatically with age. Zuckerman says his research has shown no difference in risk takers based on height, but he does agree that testosterone makes men more likely to become what he prefers to call "sensation seekers."

As for whether risky behavior diminishes with age, he wholeheartedly agrees.

"After I retired I though I would take up flying," he says with a chuckle, adding that he won't be climbing into the cockpit of a small plane anytime soon.