Why Do You Get the Urge to Jump to Your Death?

Have you ever looked over the edge of a cliff and been overcome with a powerful urge to jump? If so then congratulations for overcoming it and being here to read this today. Still, while you have apparently survived the ordeal, you could still be wondering what exactly was going on, and quite possibly worrying about it happening again. Jumping off of high things isn’t healthy… so what’s the deal? Here we will look at the psychological explanation of what’s going on and hopefully shed some light on the matter.

The Urge to Jump

So if you have no particular suicidal tendencies, why might you feel the urge to jump when presented with a sheer cliff edge? What might cause this ‘high-place phenomenon’ as it’s called by the Florida State University psychology department?

Well in fact it’s not to do with any desire to fall, but rather the effect of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Cognitive dissonance is what happens when our brain is getting conflicting signals and so tries to come up with a ‘solution’ resulting in some rather odd effects. Cognitive dissonance is similar to what happens when you look at certain optical illusions – the brain can’t work out what it is seeing, and so tries to come up with a satisfactory interpretation to help you make sense of the situation (which is after all the main role of our brain).

When you look over the edge of a cliff, this cognitive dissonance is caused by the fact that you tend to feel dizzy and to get a sense of vertigo. You feel slightly off balance and your body seeks to ‘right itself’ and yet your brain gets confused as there’s no immediate danger or apparent threat. You aren’t falling and in fact you’re probably not close enough to the edge in order to be likely to fall… so why is your body correcting itself and sending all those signals?

You need to correct yourself, you expect to fall, and yet you’re not in any danger of falling. So what’s going on? Your brain makes the only possible conclusion that it can: you must want to jump. What you feel is simply the result of miscommunication in your brain and is actually, confusingly, triggered initially by the desire not to fall. Sometimes the brain will interpret this a different way too – as your being pushed – and so sometimes we hallucinate that we’re being pushed from behind.

Either way though, the good news is that you’re not crazy, and you don’t want to die on some deep unconscious level. Rather what you’re feeling is the natural fear of extreme heights coupled with a little confusion.

Still though, maybe take a step or two back…

Comments 19
  1. Wow, I am afraid of heights. But yet I have had this feeling all my life and just thought I was weird or deranged on some level. That's really interesting.

  2. This is an unsatisfying study at best and utter BS at worst. This is a perfect example of how psychology can go from pseudoscience to a self-affirming hypothesis that borders on ridiculous. This "urge" occurs even when people are not in a "safe" location, basically any high up position and also occurs to those that do not have vertigo or fear of heights. This phenomenon seems better described as a "fear" or visualization that you will jump, not an actual urge to jump. It seems more likely to stem from an ingrained basic problem solving or self preservation strategy. We occasionally visualize ourselves in car crashes and various other predicaments, we are drawn to views but immediately recognize the dangers of any impulsive acts near the edge by visualizing the result, therefore we take a step back, which reduces the danger. Our brain forces us to be careful basically.

  3. I completely disagree with this. As a skydiver with 20/17 vision who does not suffer from vertigo your article makes no sense. I have always been a climber and I love being up in the air and up high. I have never felt dizzy when I have been exposed to extremely altitudes.

    I still get the sensation to jump, be it on the side of a building, roof top, or the side of a cliff. I also do not expect to fall. As someone who has over 60 recorded skydives I know when I am going to fall, know what it is like to fall, and know how to control myself when falling. Yet I still get the sensation to jump when I am up high without any gear.

    The sensation to jump has nothing to do with my body trying to reorient myself with the ground or make sense with being so high up in the air. Again, I have better than normal vision, I like being up in the air, I do not and never have gotten dizzy by extreme heights, I have never suffered from vertigo, and I have jumped out of a perfectly good air plane a boat load of times. Yet I still get the sensation to jump when up high. This tells me it is something much more than just cognitive dissonance.

    I am willing to bet that the urge to jump is something much much deeper than simple psychology. I personally think it is something spiritual, but if that is the case, you will not be able to prove it by simple science and psychology. I am willing to bet the people at Florida state who researched this didn't talk to or do any research on people who enjoy being up high in the air as part of their research.

    1. This is some truly narcissistic garbage. Your highly subjective, anecdotal “spiritual” experience is more illuminating that “simple” psychology? Please…

    1. I know this is an old post, but I hope you are ok. Just know you have a stranger somewhere in the world who is thinking about you and giving you a huge hug.

  4. I am terrified at anything above third floor – only if the window is openable. In airplane no fear of jumping, I can't open the window. In high rise hotel no fear of jumping because the window does not open … it is sealed. But even at third or fourth floor if the window has a latch that I can open (even it is not open now) then I am terrified I will open it and throw myself out. I have analyzed my problem and it is fear of loss of control. So even though nobody would judge me a control freak I find my fears in many case as a fear of loss of control. I am afraid in travel if I am not driving – in control. If I am in control no fear … or little fear. It is a fear of loss of control and has impact in many parts of life. Fear of being proven wrong = fear of loss of control. Many many of my fears I can now trace to this fear of loss of control. "Letting go" is the only real solution. Surrender to what is. It is spiritual.

  5. I am only afraid of jumping if I am in a situation where I can jump. If I am in high floor of hotel no problem because the windows don't open … but in high rise condo terrified because the window opens and I could jump. In airplane no fear of jumping because I cannot control it. So I conclude the fear is a fear of loss of control. I feel it is basically spiritual in nature … ego! The only satisfactory way of dealing with it is 'letting go'. Acceptance of the fear and surrender to it in sense of not resizing it. Feel the fear … to the full … in the body … let it work itself out. Accept and surrender the key. Spiritual. It is an ego problem.

  6. I am afraid of heights but when I am high up looking down I get the urge to jump, and the stronger the urge the more excited I feel so I move closer to the edge and a feeling of peace washes over me. I don't want to die and this urge scares me but sometimes when I'm on that edge I can picture myself falling and I feel free. It's a heavenly feeling, just incredible but then fear kicks back in and I move away from the edge.

  7. I once as a 10 yr old had to scoot sideways about 30 ft, my back to the wall, arms outstretched for balance, and I started to fall forward and I slammed back into the wall and got off that ledge that led to the beach and no we weren’t allowed there anyway I grew up and I can’t go to any cliff edge or height I can’t not even virtual reality on a roller coaster going down I get sick rip off the head set that scared me straight away!!

  8. I recently developed the urge to jump from bridges into the water below. It can be terrifying… it’s like I’m no longer in control of my body and sometimes I even want to grab hold of a wall or just roll up in a ball on the ground… or hold onto somebody.

    Maybe it’s an early form of schizophrenia… I so hope it’s not.

  9. Why do you get the urge to jump? Because you can. Same reason some people get the urge to yell fire in a crowded theatre or get the urge to stand up and scream in the library etc. BECAUSE YOU CAN. Your mind knows you can do all of these things. Your brain tells you it’s not rational and therefore you don’t follow through.

    I was just on the roof of a hotel where they have a bar. The railing is 4 feet high. I looked over the side and I get the feeling too. It’s because I can jump to my death, I just don’t because the rational side of me (and most of us) knows life is worth living.

  10. O my god. I thought something was wrong with my brain. I just moved into a high-rise and constantly feel the urge to jump from the balcony despite of me scared of height. At least I found some explanation on this. I hope this feeling will fade away or I’m going to get crazy!

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