A Discussion of Polar Bear Clubs

Frigid waters of thirty-eight degrees, pulses racing, bodies covered only with bathing suits. Jumping into the ice-cold water is "...like someone squeezing your chest. You can't get enough air" (Polar Bear Club 2002). "Excitement fills the air as the crowd of 2000 people all count down 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1...and the adrenaline carries you into the lake" (Jarosh 2002). Swimming in freezing, ice-cold water has been a tradition of the Polar Bear Club since 1920. How does psychology play into why people do what they do, such as jumping into frigid waters or stereotyping others?

"Some people believe and perpetuate stereotypes about particular ethnic groups" (Gall 1996). I interviewed and asked J.R. Jarosh, the President of one of the many Polar Bear Clubs around the world, if it bothers him when people stereotype the club and the people as "psychotic" or "idiotic." His reply was, "It doesn't bother me a bit. They don't know what they're missing" (Jarosh 2002). "Some people combine their firsthand perception of that person -- appearance, personality, intelligence -- with stereotypes they have formed about similar people" (Gall 1996). This means that when people see new things, such as a culture that is unfamiliar to them, some, not all, judge based on their first impression. Throughout one of the swims "...one man did it in a pink tutu and a sparkly crown" (Polar Bear Club 2002). Stereotyping could take place if someone saw a grown man swimming in freezing water in a tutu. The Polar Bear Club "...swore it wasn't an attention-getting thing" (Polar Bear Club 2002). It goes to show that the participants have confidence and do not care what others think. If this man did care, he would not be out swimming in a tutu.

"Whether a reason is right or wrong can only be decided when there is sufficient knowledge" (Eysenck, Arnold 1972) on the topic of stereotyping. Stereotyping is a result of first impressions when there is not enough knowledge, in this case a lack of knowledge on the history of a different culture. The Polar Bear Club gets stereotyped as "psychotic" and "idiotic" because it is a bunch of people swimming in frigid water, in only bathing suits. But, that is their culture and it is a tradition. Their culture should be respected, as should any culture. The tradition is performed on New Years' Day every year. Would you want your culture to be stereotyped by someone who knows nothing about the history or reasoning behind the culture? I know I wouldn't.

The history of the club is rooted in the European tradition of saunas and cold-water bathing. It was a reason and a way to keep the bathhouses busy. These days, the bathhouses are gone but the swimmers remain. (The Coney Island 2002)

The reason as to why people jump into freezing, cold water is because of their motto: "When you start your millennium at 0 degrees, there is no place to go but up" (Polar Bear Club 2000, 2002). There are also other reasons why people take the plunge. One of them is because they do it to raise money for organizations, such as the Longmont Humane Society (of Colorado) and the Radio Reading Service of the Rockies. When asking people why they jump, there are a variety of reasons. Walter Goedecke, who's the President of the Polar Bear Club in Colorado, replies that he jumps "to exercise evil spirits from my body" (Polar Bear Club 2002). Victoria Konterski does it "to feel good" (2002). One man, Bill Fabing, is a true die-hard fan of swimming in the water. "...He actually had part of his left temporal lobe removed seven years ago to curb epileptic seizures" (2002). It is mind boggling, yet fascinating, to think that a man is so devoted to his culture that he removes part of his brain.

Thousands of people come to watch the tradition take place, along with broadcasters from local radio stations. The radio stations have been the event's biggest booster over the years. The swimmers do not swim for free. A fifteen-dollar fee has to be paid by each of the participants, in order to cover liability insurance. In order to be a part of a particular culture, one needs to learn to adapt, such as the people of the Polar Bear Club learn to adapt to cold water year after year.

"Sensory adaptation consists of physical changes that occur in response to the presence of cessation of stimuli" (Gall 1996). An example of this is, "...the way in which cold water becomes more comfortable after an initial plunge" (ibid). Granted the water is still cold, but one does adapt to it slightly more than they do when they first jump in. When the Polar Bear Club swims they, "do not stay in the water for more than fifteen minutes" (Vancouver Polar Bear 2002) because hypothermia will begin to occur. There have been rumors that alcohol is used by some of the swimmers to help alleviate the initial shock of the water.

J.R. Jarosh, one of the Presidents, said that, "...they are very open about our discouragement of drinking alcoholic beverages prior to the swim" (Jarosh 2002). J.R. says the reason that the alcohol rule is enforced is because "...we've tried to promote our club as having the guts to jump in the lake without having to be plastered to do it--good clean family fun!" (2002). Motivation exists in each of the swimmers. For one to jump into frigid waters, some level of motivation exists because without it, they would have no reason to swim or take the initial plunge.

"Many theorists have agreed...that people are more strongly motivated when they project a positive outcome to their actions" (Gall 1996). Positive outcomes of swimming in cold water, for the Polar Bear Club, includes raising money for organizations, having a good time, and making new friends every year as the club continues to grow. "Psychologically-oriented theories of motivation emphasize external environmental factors and the role of thoughts and expectations in motivation" (Gall 1996). The external environmental factors, for the Polar Bear Club, are the fans and spectators. The spectators have the expectation of seeing and having a good time, and the continuation of a yearly tradition. The spectators get the swimmers pumped up and motivated because the swimmers know that the spectators and fans will be rooting them on every bone chilling stroke of the swim. The club said earlier that they do not swim for attention, but having fans and spectators there to cheer and holler for them adds to "...the thrill" (Polar Bear Club 2002) of it. Trying something new, such as jumping into cold water is one way that we can learn and get first-hand experiences from other cultures. A person can hear second-hand information from one of the members, but they can never truly feel the feelings unless they take the plunge themselves.

Maslow...formulated a list of behaviors that he believed could lead to self-actualization. These included such directives as: experience life with full absorption and concentration of a child; try something new." (Gall 1996)

Less stereotyping may occur if people would open up and try new things from other cultures. Then, after they have experienced it, they can make valid observations and reasons on whether they liked it or not. Gordon Allport, "...argued that one's self is able to make choices where it can influence the development of its own personality along with adjusting to the emergence of new motivational systems" (Roeckelein 1998). What this is saying is that each individual member of the club has the ability to make his/her own decisions. The decisions that they do make reflect the personality that they have and, depending on their personality, allows them to try new motivational things, such as jumping into cold waters.

"Allport emphasized that no two people have exactly the same traits, and his trait theory of personality stressed the uniqueness of the individual." In a culture, no one has the same traits, although same ideas and similar personalities may be present. The culture of the Polar Bear Club is one of motivation and determination. A person has to have a thirsting drive within them in order to jump into water that is freezing and full of ice. "...The essence of the Polar Bear Plunge...is that it draws an unusual group of people" (Polar Bear 2000, 2002).

Every culture has unique individuals that formulate together because they share similar, if not the same, ideas, beliefs, interests, or personalities. The Polar Bear Club started to keep bathhouses busy at a local beach, and now it is a year round tradition that has become popular over the years. This is because individuals are motivated and willing to try something new. The importance of trying new things lessens stereotyping. One should not stereotype unless they know all the evidence, such as the history or background of a culture. Psychology plays an important and significant role as to why people do what they do, such as stereotyping others or jumping into frigid waters. As for the Polar Bear Club, it "...will continue to bring unforgettable moments to people for years to come" (Jarosh 2002).


I'll have to admit when I first picked this culture I thought that I would be out of my league. Everyone I talked to said that they have never heard of the Polar Bear Club. Before doing this project I really didn't know who they were either. I thought they were a bunch of crazy people jumping into cold waters. I'll have to admit that I did stereotype them, when I knew nothing about their history or background. After doing research of the culture I found out that there was a purpose as to why they plunge into freezing waters. My motivation for writing this paper was because I wanted people to read it and learn from it. Maybe those who were skeptical about the culture before or stereotypical will get a better understanding of what the Polar Bear Club is all about.

I learned how to use a variety of resources by doing this paper. Before this, I never had gone to the library. Even though all the papers were tedious and time consuming, they helped my greatly in pulling all the pieces of my paper together. Doing the annotated bibliography really helped. A big THANK YOU goes out to you, Ms. Watson, for making us do that even though we did not want to because it really helped me out when I had to write the paper.

Works Cited

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club.? Polar Bear Swimmers. 25 Sept. 2002 http://winterbathers.com.

Eysenck, H.J., and W. Arnold, eds. Encyclopedia of Psychology. New York: Herder
KG, 1972.

Gall, Susan, ed. The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996.

Jarosh, J. R. Personal interview. 8 Oct. 2002.

Polar Bear Club splashes into new year. Boulder Polar Bear Swimmers. 9 Oct. 2002 http://rockypreps.com.

Polar Bear 2000 expected to draw 300 dunkers. Boulder Polar Bear Swimmers. 9 Oct. 2002

Roeckelein, Jon. Dictionary of Theories, Laws, and Concepts in Psychology. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club. Polar Bear Swimmers. 2 Oct. 2002 http://city.vancouver.bc.ca/parks/recreation/polarhis.htm.