On Friday I took a group of physics students to King’s Dominion, Virginia’s largest and most famous amusement park. It was ‘Education Days’. during which the park sets up tables with various fun, museum-style demonstrations of concepts from physics, biology, and so forth. My students and those from other schools ignored the educational part and headed straight for the roller coasters. This tells us that children generally prefer entertainment to education; hence the only hope for educating kids is to keep them away from entertaining things. But that’s obvious enough even when we’re not at amusement parks.
So what do amusement parks tell us about ourselves? Rides are intended to be ‘thrilling’, which is the same as ‘frightening’ or ‘scary’, and the good rides do indeed meet that qualification. When you’re going down a big drop on a roller coaster you feel scared. You can try telling yourself that rationally the engineers design the coaster with the goal of no one dieing or being injured, that thousands of people have ridden it without being hurt, and so forth. Nonetheless, instinct will shove aside such rational considerations and take over. You will be scared.
Why do we have such instincts? Some say that the instincts come from our evolutionary past. Back in the caveman days, things such as falls from great heights, snakes, drowning, and so forth killed people. Hence people were more likely to survive and propagate their genes if they were afraid of those things, and here we are, millions of years later, with instinctual aversions to those things.
The only problem with this hypothesis is that it’s obviously wrong, or at least not the whole story. If we inherited genes that made us avoid scary things, then we’d avoid scary things. But we don’t. We go to amusement parks with the specific intention of imersing ourselves in scary things. And we watch horror movies. And we go white-water rafting. And so forth. So obviously there’s something in us that craves the very experiences that scare us. It’s almost as if we have an instinct to go against our instincts.
Some of us, that is. Others, such as myself, wimp out when confronted with a roller coast. I’ll ride the lesser ones such as Rebel Yell, but when confronted with something like the Intimidator 305 I get slightly ill just by looking at it.