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I have been a diver almost as long as I have been a psychologist. I began training with the British Sub Aqua Club in 1975, two years after I started on an undergraduate psychology course. At one point, the two even came together when I studied the effects of stress, along with a colleague, Arthur Grierson, who was an active sky diver. Sadly, Arthur died in a sky diving accident and I moved on to other areas of psychology. However, the psychology of scuba diving has always interested me and this page reflects that interest. These days, I am a diving instructor with PADI, in my spare time, and my knowledge of psychology has undoubtedly made me a better instructor. I hope that this page teaches you a few interesting things about the psychology that underlies scuba diving and maybe even leads to changes that improve your diving enjoyment and safety.

Personality of divers

Are you interested in becoming a scuba diver, or are you one already? If so, there is a good chance that you will score higher than average on a type of personality that is called 'Sensation Seeking'. Sensation Seeking refers to a preference for a particular level of sensory stimulation. People who score highly on scales of Sensation Seeking prefer higher levels of stimulation. They are people who are often looking for new and exciting things to do.

If you want to find out where you are on the Sensation Seeking continuum, try the following quiz. Answer 'True' or 'False' to each of the following items:

1. I would really enjoy skydiving.
2. I can imagine myself driving a sports car in a race and loving it.
3. My life is very secure and comfortable - the way I like it.
4. I usually like emotionally expressive or artistic people, even if they are sort of wild.
5. I like the idea of seeing many of the same warm, supportive faces in my everyday life.
6. I like doing adventurous things and would enjoy being an explorer.

7. A good photograph should express peacefulness creatively.
8. One of the most important things in living is fully experiencing all emotions.
9. I like to be very comfortable when I go on a trip or vacation.
10. Doing the same things each day bores me.
11. I like nothing better than relaxing by a pool when I am on holiday.
12. I would like to try several types of drugs as long as they don't harm me permanently.
13. Drinking and partying really appeal to me in my spare time.
14. Rational people try to avoid dangerous situations.

Scoring: Give yourself 1 point for answering 'True' to items 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 13. Also give yourself 1 point for answering 'False' to items 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 14. Add up your points and compare yourself to the following norms: 11 - 14, High Sensation Seeker; 6 - 10, Moderate Sensation Seeker; 1 - 5, Low Sensation Seeker.

This is an adapted and shortened form of Zuckerman's (1979) Sensation Seeking Scale. It gives a rough measure only.

Boredom is the main enemy of sensation seekers, who like adventure and challenges such as those you get from scuba diving. They are generally more impulsive, uninhibited, extraverted and non-conformist than low sensation seekers. High sensation seekers also have the following characteristics, according to Zuckerman:

1. They are more willing to engage in activities that involve a risk. So, as well as scuba diving, they are also more likely to go mountain climbing, sky diving and surfing. They are more likely to ride motor cycles and drive their cars faster than others. They are also more likely to experiment with recreational drugs such as marijuana.

2. They are more willing to volunteer for unusual experiments or activities that they may know little about. So they volunteer more often to participate in meditation, studies of hypnosis and so on.

3. They engage in a wider range of sexual activities with a greater variety of partners. They also report more sexual experimentation than others.

4. They show other preferences that promote high levels of stimulation. For example, they tend to like extensive travel, gambling, spicy foods, provocative art, wild parties and unusual friends.

According to Lesnik-Oberstein and Cohen (1984), compatibility in sensation seeking may influence the progress of romantic relationships. Studies show that partners in intimate relationships tend to be fairly similar in terms of sensation seeking. According to Zuckerman, this similarity occurs because incompatibility in sensation seeking places strain on intimate relationships. He theorises that persons very high and very low in sensation seeking may have difficulty understanding and relating to each other, and also in finding mutually enjoyable activities.

Nevo and Breitstein (1999) surveyed many studies of the characteristics of divers and came up with the following robust features that emerged from many individual studies:

  • Divers tend to gamble, take risks and seek adventure.
  • Divers are more masculine and more aggressive than non divers. (If you are interested in completing a questionnaire that looks at how masculine and feminine you are, click here.)
  • Divers suffer less anxiety than non divers.
  • The general health of divers is better than non divers.

On the other hand, they also found some health problems that were associated with professional divers (in other words, divers who dive for a living):

  • Hearing impairments.
  • Muscular and joint health problems.
  • Possible impairment of neuropsychological functioning. This one is less certain, but there may be a slow accumulation of small effects over many years.

On the other hand, according to a study in the December 12 issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology, scuba diving has no long-term effects on the brain. The study compared 24 professional German Navy divers and 24 German Navy employees who do not dive. A battery of exams testing their brain functions showed no difference between the two groups. More information on the study can be found at the Rodale scuba web site, at:

Following on from this quick look at professional divers, Baddeley et al (1978) surveyed commercial divers working on the North Sea oil rigs. They used interviews and questionnaires to find out what the commercial divers themselves thought were the characteristics of the good commercial diver and the bad commercial diver. Here are their findings, ordered by the number of times they were mentioned:

Good Diver

Bad Diver

Trustworthy and precise

Doesn't ask questions
Emotionally balanced Gives up easily
Has common sense 'Superhead' (I don't know what this means)
Good professional knowledge Tense and nervous
Asks when he doesn't know Dishonest
Honest 'Know all'
Energetic Negligent
Experienced 'Never afraid'
Fears when necessary Complains
Has a sense of humour Untidy
Considerate of others Unsociable
Jack-of-all-trades Never pleased with new equipment
Doesn't complain  

Nevo and Breitstein (1999) have pointed out that problems sometimes occur because of an incompatibility between some of the tasks needed for safe diving and the personality of the kind of person attracted to the sport. Many divers are attracted to the sport because of the challenges and a liking for proximity to danger. Yet safe diving can require meticulous attention to details such as checking the condition of one's gear or dive tables, that this type of diver is less likely to do.

Stress, anxiety and panic

Most divers will experience enough stress at some time in their diving lives to feel anxiety before, during or after a dive. For some, this will reach an intensity that makes normal functioning difficult or impossible and this is the state we call panic. According to some diving psychologists, such as Bachrach and Egstrom (1987), panic is the leading cause of diving fatalities. Panic can result from a gradual accumulation of anxiety evoking events (cold, tiredness, unfamiliarity with equipment etc.), or from a single event that the diver feels unable to handle (regulator free flow, loss of a mask etc.). Edmonds (1986) pointed out that fear alone, without the addition of any other stress, can cause death. Panic is more likely to happen when diving at a new site or in more extreme conditions than the diver is used to

For some people, a gradual accumulation of stressful life events can take them closer to their panic threshold. If you are interested in a seeing a list of typical life events, with an estimate of their typical stress value, click here.

The main signs and symptoms of panic are:

  • Respiratory changes: Changes in the breathing rate and pattern. In a panic attack, shortness of breath is common and the diver may feel that they cannot get enough air into their lungs.
  • Cardiovascular changes: Changes can include tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and arrhythmias (irregular heart beat). The diver may experience heart 'palpitations', a feeling of heaviness or chest pain.
  • Gastrointestinal changes: The GI system may become more active, with symptoms ranging from 'butterflies in the stomach' to nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • Genitourinary changes: Changes in the GU system include increased urination or the sensation of needing to urinate and tingling sensations.
  • Musculoskeletal changes: Muscular tension, headache and tremor are common symptoms.
  • Vocalisation changes: Tremor in the voice, a high-pitched voice or 'frozen' vocalisations are the main signs here.

Panic can lead to death in several ways. If the diver is breathing rapidly and shallowly, insufficient oxygen reaches the lungs, causing hypoxia and the build up of excess CO2. The diver thus tries to breathe even faster and may expel the regulator because they feel it is preventing them from getting enough air. Some divers in this situation bolt for the surface and expose themselves to the risks of decompression sickness. Hypoxia can also lead to loss of consciousness. The increase in heart rate and sympathetic nervous system activity can cause a heart attack in someone with a weak heart.

Panic also prevents the diver from thinking in a cool, rational way. If the situation calls for rational thought, if the diver is tangled in a line or has an equipment malfunction for example, panic can prevent the kind of reasoning that is needed to solve the problem and will often make it worse.

Divers can prevent panic in a number of ways:

  • Improving physical fitness. Divers who are fit have more resources that they can use to combat cold, fatigue etc.
  • Improving knowledge of diving. Knowing the real risks of diving prevents unrealistic fears from taking over. For example, many novice or trainee divers ask me if we are likely to encounter sharks on a dive and how dangerous they are. It usually helps them to know that the chances of being bitten by a shark are less than the chances of being stung to death by bees. If divers were worried by truly risky situations, they would be far more likely to panic when they get behind the wheel of a car. Driving a car is far more likely to lead to danger than a shark encounter.
  • Practising emergency responses. One of the most useful things that divers can do to prevent panic is to practice emergency response techniques, such as buddy breathing ascents, until they become automatic. For one thing it saves valuable time because in a real emergency you don't have to spend as much time thinking of every step. For another thing, the confidence of knowing you can handle emergencies makes panic a less likely response.
  • Knowing your limits. When you know what kind of dives you are trained and competent to carry out, you are less likely to get into emergency situations.
  • Improving psychological fitness. Spigolon and Dell'oro (1985) have proposed that autogenic training can be useful to divers. This involves learning techniques that break the negative circle that goes from difficult situation to anxiety to panic. A diver who, when confronted by difficulties, can direct himself to "Relax - Breathe easily - Think" will be in a better frame of mind to help himself and/or others.
    A simple way of doing this is to include deliberate pauses at important points in a dive. This will improve your diving and reduce stress. At each major transition point - before donning gear or entering the water; at the surface and before descending; when arriving at the bottom and before ascending; at the safety stop; and finally when arriving on the surface or before leaving the water:
    - Pause.
    - Check yourself, your gear, your buddy and the environment.
    - Take time to allow your body and mind to adjust to where you are and what you are doing.
    - Compare instruments and communicate with your buddy as needed.
  • Use appropriate equipment. If you know that you will be diving under potentially difficult conditions, it can be very reassuring to know that you have the appropriate equipment. For example, if you will be drift diving in choppy conditions so that the boat captain may find it difficult to locate you after the dive, it can be reassuring to carry a signalling device, such as a tall surface marker buoy, so that you are visible even from a long way away.

In the mid 1970s, I read a journal article about the difference between experienced and inexperienced sky divers. Experienced sky divers were not only less anxious than the inexperienced, they also felt the anxiety at a different time. Experienced sky divers felt anxiety some hours before the jump and were calm at the time of the jump, while inexperienced sky divers felt maximum anxiety at the point of the jump itself. If I can track down the reference I will put it here because I thought it was an interesting result.

Supposing the worst happens and you get involved in a dive incident where you, your dive buddy or someone in your group had a dive emergency, you may have some reactions you weren't expecting. Life threatening incidents can be upsetting, overwhelming, even terrifying. Someone involved may experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms of PTSD may include:

Feeling numb
Feeling tired, depressed, or drained of energy
Not enjoying things that used to be pleasurable
Feeling anxious, sometimes for no apparent reason, or feeling 'jumpy'
Experiencing intrusive thoughts of the dive incident
Having dreams or nightmares of the dive incident
Having more intense feelings than usual
Feeling alienated from people and having problems with relationships

If you think that someone you know may be experiencing PTSD, there are things you can do to help them:

  • Listen uncritically and sympathetically - don't give advice or say things like, "You should have done this....".
  • Give them a hand with day to day chores.
  • Give them the opportunity to talk if they want to - don't press them if they don't want to.

If the effects persist for more than a week or two, suggest that they talk to a professional, such as a counsellor.

The Exceptional Diver

Most of the findings above apply to the 'average' diver. However, is there any way of training someone to become an exceptional diver? Nevo and Breitstein (1999) report one possible approach, based on the training of Soviet cosmonauts. In addition to the complex routines that each cosmonaut had to memorise perfectly, they were also trained in conditions designed to prepare them psychologically for the stresses and possible emergencies of space flight. For example, they carried out survival training in difficult conditions to create feelings of autonomy and self-confidence; they practised sky diving while doing more and more tasks during the jump, to be able to divide attention and deal with problems simultaneously; and they isolated crew members for a month in a closed room to become accustomed to isolation.

This training was said to have prepared them to deal with the mishaps that occurred during space flights and to improvise solutions to the problems that arose.

Children and Diving

PADI has created diving programmes that enable children as young as 8 years old to experience scuba diving. With their usual thoroughness they have considered many aspects of this before making programmes such as Bubblemaker available, including looking into the developmental psychology of children and diving. Below is a letter that I wrote in response to an article on the subject that appeared in PADI's journal to its members. In case you do not have access to the Undersea Journal, the original article consisted mainly of an introduction to the developmental concepts of Jean Piaget, an influential developmental psychologist who placed considerable emphasis on a model of cognitive development involving progress through discrete stages:

Mr K. Shreeves
PADI Americas
30151 Tomas Street
Rancho Santa Margarita
California 92688
11th May 2001

Dear Mr Shreeves

Ref.: How Children Learn

I enjoyed reading your article in the First Quarter issue of the Undersea Journal, on ‘How Children Learn.’ It is very encouraging for me as a diving instructor, diving psychologist and lecturer in developmental psychology, to see that PADI has taken the trouble to study the psychology of young people and children in the development of their programmes.

I thought it worth adding to what you wrote that, although Piaget is still respected by psychologists and teachers alike and many teachers still describe what they do in Piagetian terms, in practice very few actually use his concepts. In practice, if you watch what teachers actually do, it is much more in line with the increasingly popular work of Lev Vygotsky and his sociocultural theory (see Vygotsky, 1978, for example). There is a very good reason for that – almost the only role for teachers in Piaget’s model is in creating a suitable environment in which children can learn for themselves. Vygotsky’s model is far better suited both to the actual practice of teaching in schools and also of imparting skills such as those needed for scuba diving to children.

There are also good reasons for thinking that Piaget underestimated children’s abilities and the ages at which they are able to do certain things, because the tasks he used were not suited to the actual abilities of children. So I believe that there are good reasons for not using Piaget’s theories as the psychological basis for teaching children to dive, but instead to use Vygotsky’s ideas.

Vygotsky, for example, used the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) to describe the gap between what they are already able to do and what they cannot accomplish without the help of a skilled adult. With the right kind of guidance they can cross the ZPD gap and responsibility for learning gradually shifts to the child. The temporary guidance that the skilled adult gives is known as scaffolding, because the assistance is removed when the child can do the task alone. It is like teaching a child to float. First an adult provides support and gives guidance on breathing and posture in the water etc. Then gradually the support is removed until the child is floating by himself.

No single theory of children’s development is universally accepted, but Vygotsky’s model seems to have particular relevance to teaching diving skills to children, where Piaget’s model is less so. However, one implication of the model is that some detailed study is carried out to find out which of the skills of diving fall within the ZPD for children at a particular age and which skills are beyond the typical child of that age. If it has not been done already, I would urge PADI to support such research being carried out.

Yours sincerely

(Dr) Peter M. Forster
PADI # 605811


Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Final Thought

I hope you found this page interesting. If you want to discuss any of it, please get in touch. If you want to find out how to cope with diving emergencies, read on - we are fortunate to enjoy a sport with one of the lowest accident rates around, but the inherent risks of diving mean dive accidents may be serious. And when things go wrong, they can go wrong quickly. A quick, cool and effective response is often the difference between a close call and serious injury or worse. How prepared do you feel to handle a dive emergency? Go to: to find out more about handling dive emergencies.

I wish you safe and sensational diving.


Bachrach, A.J. and Egstrom, G.H. (1987). Stress and performance in diving. San Pedro, CA: Best Publishing Company.
Baddeley, A.D., Godden, D., Moray, N.P., Ross, H.E. and Synodinos, N.E. (1978). Final report on training services agency contract - Selection of diving trainees. Department of Psychology, Stirling University and M.R.C. Applied Psychology Research Unit, Cambridge.
Edmonds, C., (1986). The abalone diver. Australia: National Safety Council of Australia, Victoria.
Lesnik-Oberstein, M. and Cohen L. (1984). Cognitive style, sensation seeking and assortative mating. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46 (1), 112 - 117.
Nevo, B. and Breitstein, S. (1999). Psychological and Behavioral Aspects of Diving. San Pedro, CA:Best Publishing Company.
Spigolon, L. and Dell'oro, A., (1985). Autogenic training in frogmen. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 16 (4), 312 - 320.
Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation Seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

That's it for now - I will put more interesting research here when I get the time. Here are links back to our other diving pages:

© 2000 to 2001 Peter Michael Forster

Copyright © Blue Oceans & Peter Forster