Outdoor Education R&E Center

Outdoor Education Theory

The Adventure Experience Paradigm
- Simon Priest

James Neill
Last updated:
26 Apr 2007

The Adventure Experience Paradigm - Simon Priest

Simon Priest (Martin & Priest, 1986; Priest, 1990, 1999; Priest & Gass, 1997) drew on:

Based on the work of these previous authors, Priest proposed what he termed the "Adventure Experience Paradigm" (AEP).  The AEP is based on two theoretical dimensions (personal skill level and situational challenge) which are viewed as interacting to create the psychological experience of five distinct states of increasing degrees of arousal:

  1. Exploration & Experimentation
  2. Adventure
  3. Peak Adventure
  4. Misadventure
  5. Devastation & Disaster

Priest labels the two underlying dimensions Competence and Risk. However, the table below suggests other equivalent terminology which can aid in reading and understanding the AEP in the context of related psychological theories.  In fact it can be a useful training exercise to have people brainstorm their own labels for these two critical underlying dimensions of adventure experience.

Table 1. The individual and the environment: Two underlying components determining psychological experience



  • Competence
  • Individual
  • Person
  • Skill
  • Ability
  • Capacity
  • Risk
  • Environment
  • Situation
  • Challenge
  • Difficulty
  • Arousal

A particularly useful feature of Priest's Adventure Experience Paradigm has been its diagrammatic representation (see Figure 1).   This has helped the AEP to be understood and widely used in adventure circles.  The concept is readily committable to visual memory, makes intuitive sense, and almost everyone can relate the paradigm using to their own personal experience.  The AEP is widely used in staff training and in theoretical writing about how to design and manage actual and perceived risk in adventure education (e.g., see de Bruin, 2002).

Figure 1. The Adventure Experience Paradigm (Martin & Priest, 1986; Priest, 1990, 1999)

Research and Extensions to Related Concepts for Priest's Adventure Experience Paradigm

The Adventure Experience Paradigm is relevant to a wide variety of human experience, not just outdoor adventure.   It has also been the focus of several research studies including McIntyre's (1999) investigation of two different types of outdoor experience -- horse riding and black cave rafting (see Figure 2) and Hollenhorst and Perna (2003).  Note how in the graph below, participants reported their horse-riding as being more arousal than the black-water rafting (floating on tubes along an underground river).  Also note that particularly for black-water rafting, participants reported different arousal levels for different various parts of the journey, along of which is consistent which the AEP.

Figure 2. The Adventure Experience Paradigm with results from McIntyre's (1999) Experience Sampling Measures of participant responses to different parts of a Blackwater Rafting and Horseriding outdoor experience.

Figure 3. Yerkes-Dodson Law

Priest's Adventure Experience Paradigm relates to a broader psychological and physiological literature, such as Yerkes-Dodson law (1908; Clark, 2000; Wikipedia) (see Figure 3).  A Stage 0 might be added: boredom, where a person's skill level is very high and challenge is very low.

Critical writing about the AEP seems to somewhat lacking, but worth considering are issues including:

  • How well can these two theoretical dimensions really sum up the diverse nature of human experience?  e.g., Neill (2003) and others have suggested that outdoor education programs involves at least 6 domains -- individual, activity, group, instructor, environment, and culture.
  • Some authors have been challenging the underlying stress theory upon which much adventure philosophy is based, finding that peak experiences can occur in relatively calm, creative, silent, and more gentle wilderness-type experience and activities (e.g., Leberman & Martin, 2003).


Clark, D. (2000). Yerkes-Dodson law - Arousal.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.

de Bruin, H. (2002). Psychological risk in adventure-related experiential learning.  SPARC Risk 2002: New Zealand Conference on Outdoors Risk Management.

Hollenhorst & Perna, F. (2003). An empirical comparison of the four channel flow model and adventure experience paradigm. Leisure Sciences, 25, 17-31.

Martin, P., & Priest, S. (1986). Understanding the adventure experience. Journal of Adventure Education, 3, 18-21.

McIntyre, N. (1999). Investigating adventure experiences: An experiential sampling approach. Scisco Conscientia, 1(1), 1-13.

Mortlock, C. (1984). The Adventure alternative.  Cicerone Press: Cumbria, UK.

Priest, S. (1990). The adventure experience paradigm. In J.C. Miles, & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure Recreation. (pp.157-162). State College PA: Venture Publishing.

Priest, S. (1999). The adventure experience paradigm (2nd ed.). In J.C. Miles, & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure Recreation. (pp.159-162). State College PA: Venture Publishing.

Priest, S., & Gass, M. (1997). Effective leadership in adventure programming. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Wikipedia. Yerkes-Dodson law.