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Sources: Mary Cain, 785-532-6884, mecain@k-state.edu;
and Richard Harris, 785-532-0610, rjharris@k-state.edu
News release prepared by: Beth Bohn, 785-532-6415, bbohn@k-state.edu

Thursday, June 25, 2009

K-STATE PSYCHOLOGISTS LOOK AT SOME REASONS BEHIND THE FASCINATION WITH FIREWORKS

MANHATTAN -- Fireworks are a popular way to celebrate the Fourth of July, whether shooting them off from the backyard or watching a professional display.

While there are many reasons why fireworks are so enjoyed on Independence Day, tradition and their dangerous side could be part of their attraction for some of us, according to two Kansas State University psychologists.

Holidays, weddings and birthdays are occasions that tend to bring out the most traditional side of people, said Richard Harris, K-State professor of psychology.

"This is particularly true if people have strong memories of celebrating a holiday in a particular way in their childhood," Harris said. "People are strongly drawn to recreate that 'safe' childhood holiday activity. People who might never seek out a fireworks display other times might find that important to do on Independence Day. People who remember enjoying setting off fireworks themselves as children will want to do that as adults or at least help their kids do it, and as such, perpetuate these memories."

If someone has no such memories, they won't respond that way, Harris said.

"For example, I grew up somewhere where individual fireworks were not allowed -- or even available as far as I knew -- so I never did that. I've always thought of them as dangerous and really didn't want my kids to have them," he said.

"Another example of the power of traditions is that even many very nontraditional people will want a traditional wedding and may surprise themselves and friends as to how important some traditional wedding trappings might be to them," Harris said. "Similarly, many people feel that Christmas should be spent with family -- even family you don't necessarily feel that close to or whose company you would not seek out at other times. Most people want turkey for Thanksgiving -- even if they don't particularly like turkey."

Fireworks also are explosives and can be dangerous, which can add to their appeal to some people, said Mary Cain, associate professor of psychology at K-State.

"Engaging in risky behaviors is very reinforcing for people," Cain said. "For some, it can cause release of a chemical in the brain that helps people feel good. The chemical is a neurotransmitter called dopamine and it is released when we engage in behaviors we enjoy, such as eating, drinking, sex, etc. Some people release dopamine when they engage in risky behaviors.

"Individuals vary in how much they find risky behavior reinforcing. People who are high sensations seekers enjoy risky behaviors more and seek them out. In addition to fireworks, they enjoy things that are novel and complex, such as roller coasters, skydiving and driving fast," she said. "On the other hand, low sensation seekers do not enjoy these activities and will likely avoid them. When we look at the dopamine system of high and low sensation seekers, high sensation seekers have differences in their dopamine system and have more activation of the dopamine system when they are presented with new and complex stimuli."

Cain said another reason we may enjoy fireworks might be because they are only available for a few days of the year.

"If people had daily access to them, most would begin to find them boring, but given that our access is restricted, we find we may enjoy them more," she said. "In many states fireworks are illegal on the Fourth. For some, especially high sensation seekers, this may increase their appeal even more as using them becomes an even riskier behavior since they are illegal."