Recreational Tornado Chasing: the Psychology of Risk

Who seeks the thrill of nature at its most beastly? Researchers at the University of Missouri’s School of Natural Resources surveyed people who sign up for tornado chasing with five different tour companies in Tornado Alley and found that:

  • 62 percent are male
  • 63 percent were single.
  • The mean age was almost 42.
  • More than 25 percent had an advance degree.
  • 33 percent earn more than $100,000 per year
  • More than half are visiting from outside the United States: one-third from Europe, 13 percent from Canada (although one company cooperating in the study chased in Canada), and 11 percent from Australia.

We know that chasing is a hobby that is hard to shake. Not all these tourists are newbies: 53 percent had previous chasing experience and fewer than half of those had done so with a tour company, yet over 30 percent of those with chasing experience had seen a tornado before. 68 percent said they would be willing to spend money on another chase tour.
In a Master’s thesis based on the study, Shuangyu Xu builds psychological profiles of people based on “sensation-seeking” scales of behavior that might identify motivations for chasing tornadoes (asking questions about, for example, predilections for strange foods, comfort with people who are different, and predilection for restlessness). Previous studies had used similar psychological tools to investigate mountaineering, sky diving, white water rafting, and other high risk recreation. The storm chasing tourists scored very moderately on these tests for sensation-seeking behavior.

[H]ang-glider pilots (Wagner & Houlihan, 1994), mountain climbers (Cronin, 1991), skiers, rock climbers, white water kayakers, and stunt flyers (Slanger & Rudestam, 1997) displayed high levels of sensation seeking across all dimensions. These results may suggest that recreational storm chasers are different from other risk recreation activity participants, especially because their personalities seem to be more drawn to new experiences rather than the risks involved.

The tourists professed to sign up to be near nature, to witness natural power and beauty, and to learn about tornadoes. They were not generally doing it to impress people or do something extraordinary, and only moderately interested in the thrill, danger, or risks.
About half of the tourists were able to see a funnel cloud on their trip (and almost 35 percent saw a tornado on the ground). Interestingly, though, while nine companies originally agreed to distribute surveys to customers, four ultimately did not, citing inadequate weather and challenging economic conditions. Maybe the real risk takers here are not the tourists but the tour operators, who put their financial well-being at the mercy of both the business climate and the weather.