Titanic submarine missing: why wealthy people go on extreme tourist expeditions, according to psychologists

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There’s a psychological reason behind why wealthy people choose dangerous activities - and it’s to do with how they made their money

Rescuers are currently in a race against time to find five men trapped inside a submersible somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean after it went missing on a tourist expedition to the Titanic shipwreck site.

The deep-sea vessel, named Titan, lost communication with tour operators on Sunday (18 June) less than two hours into its dive down to the seabed, sparking widespread fear for the crew’s safety. A mass rescue operation was subsequently launched amid warnings that the sub only has a limited amount of oxygen left.

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Those aboard Titan are Hamish Harding, a billionaire explorer and businessman who lives in the United Arab Emirates; Shazada Dawood, one of the wealthiest men from Pakistan, and his 19-year-old son Sulaiman Dawood, both of whom live in Surbiton; Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, the company running the expedition to the Titanic; and well-known French explorer Paul-Henry Nargeolet, who has previously journeyed to the site and is believed to be the pilot.

Something these men all have in common is a certain amount of wealth - which is unsurprising given that it costs $250,000 per person to go on the expedition. The idea of spending this much money on an activity that can be so dangerous has sparked a lot of conversation online - with many commenting that the expedition sounds like their “worst nightmare” and saying they would not do it even if they were paid that amount. 

But of course, for those who go on or hope to go on these sorts of trips - whether it be a voyage to the Titanic, a $120,000 climb up Mount Everest, or a $200,000 ticket to board Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space flight, the prospect must sound exciting rather than terrifying. Enticing rather than unappealing. Worthwhile rather than ‘just not worth it’. The question then, is why? What’s the psychology behind this? And why is it more likely that those with money choose to do these sorts of things?

Why do people go on extreme tourist expeditions? Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorldWhy do people go on extreme tourist expeditions? Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld
Why do people go on extreme tourist expeditions? Credit: Kim Mogg / NationalWorld | Kim Mogg / NationalWorld

Aside from the obvious answer of, ‘because they can afford it’, according to travel psychologist Dr Charlotte Russell, it has a lot to do with the worldview and perspective on life of those who are more wealthy. She explained to NationalWorld that many people find “challenging themselves” to be a positive thing, but for those of a more “normal” economic standing, this can come in the form of training for a marathon, learning a new skill, or taking up a hobby out of your comfort zone.

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“In contrast,” she continued, “those who are very wealthy are in an unusual situation because they have more extreme endeavours available to them. It is also more likely that they associate with other people in a similar financial position, and so their view of what is ‘normal’ is likely to be very different to the average person.”

Hamish Harding, one of five people on board a submersible tourist vessel which went missing during a voyage to the Titanic shipwreckHamish Harding, one of five people on board a submersible tourist vessel which went missing during a voyage to the Titanic shipwreck
Hamish Harding, one of five people on board a submersible tourist vessel which went missing during a voyage to the Titanic shipwreck

There is also a psychological reason behind why those who are wealthy tend to opt for activities that are dangerous rather than just “extreme” - and it’s to do with how they made their money. “Becoming a billionaire is likely to have its own risk factors for behaving in an extreme way,” Dr Russell told NationalWorld.

Sometimes, Dr Russell continued, this also develops into a tendency amongst those viewed as being ‘at the top’ to view more things as a competition. This leads to those who are rich often looking for something more and more extreme to do, as their life is already in some ways, “an extreme”.

A search operation is underway to find the missing submersible tourist vessel that disappeared during a voyage to the Titanic shipwreck. Credit: PA/Kim MoggA search operation is underway to find the missing submersible tourist vessel that disappeared during a voyage to the Titanic shipwreck. Credit: PA/Kim Mogg
A search operation is underway to find the missing submersible tourist vessel that disappeared during a voyage to the Titanic shipwreck. Credit: PA/Kim Mogg | PA/Kim Mogg

Shirley Palmer, who advises CEOs about mindsets and happiness, echoed this, explaining that there is a link between extreme tourism and a rich person’s reputation. She told NationalWorld: “For the very affluent, participation in extreme tourism serves as a testament to their social standing. Very few individuals can afford to undertake such expeditions, and thus, these activities symbolise exclusivity and prestige.”

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She also pointed out the more personal perspective though, arguing: “ Even amongst those who appear to possess everything, there may be a yearning for escape and novelty, an antidote to the monotony or stress of their daily routines. Extreme tourism provides a break from the familiar, injecting a surge of exhilaration into their lives.”

Palmer added that these activities also provide the chance for a greater sense of “purpose, meaning, or fulfilment”, the opportunity to “nurture a deeper connection with nature and the universe”, and the possibility of “leaving a legacy”. She explained: “They can see their actions as boundary-pushing, capable of inspiring others, and potentially driving advancements in areas such as space exploration. This ambition to effect change can be a potent motivator, extending their impact beyond their personal sphere.”

Of course, while money opens up some of these extreme experiences - it is not just billionaires and the ultra-rich who attempt these sorts of things. Adventurer Mark Agnew, 32, who is from Scotland but currently lives in London, is hoping to be the first person to kayak the Arctic’s 2000-mile Northwest Passage.

He will follow the same route that the British Arctic exploration voyage led by Sir John Franklin took in 1845, which was met with disaster after the ship became icebound. The crew of 129 men were lost and presumed dead.

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Global warming has changed the conditions, making the expedition possible again - but there are still risks. Mark will have to brace for the harsh elements of the Arctic and tackle various threats to his safety - such as the possibility of polar bears breaching their camp each night.

Adventurer Mark Agnew. Credit: Matt JonesAdventurer Mark Agnew. Credit: Matt Jones
Adventurer Mark Agnew. Credit: Matt Jones | Matt Jones

Explaining why he wants to do this, Mark told NationalWorld that his focus is just on what he wants to experience in his life. He explained: “For me, the alternative seems worse. Just earning money month to month to keep living, to keep doing the same thing. I had a bit of an existential crisis when I started working, and just thought, ‘this cannot be it’.”

There are many other attractions, he added, from “having an immersive experience in nature” to “creating a camaraderie with others that you wouldn’t be able to go elsewhere”. For Mark, there’s also a personal challenge, because in 2018 he suffered a “mental health spiral” after two failed attempts to set the world record for rowing across the Atlantic.

Adventurer Mark Agnew. Adventurer Mark Agnew.
Adventurer Mark Agnew. | Credit: Mark Agnew.

“I changed my mindset after that,” he told NationalWorld. “I started to view adventuring as about the experience more than about the outcome. I wanted to make it part of my life rather than just looking at things I can tick off.

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“The consequence is huge, you could say, as it’s possible death. Is that justifiable? No, because I have a pregnant wife and a one-year-old daughter at home. But for me, I do everything to minimise the risk as much as possible. So there’s a gap there. And in some ways, the risk of my demise brings me less panic than the prospect of living a mundane life.”

Finally, for Mark, there’s also an altruistic aspect. He is completing the expedition in aid of the Wilderness Foundation - hoping to raise over £25,000. You can donate to his fundraiser here.

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