Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Sensation seeking
How does it affect your life?
- What is sensation seeking?
- Am I a sensation seeker?
- How can an understanding of sensation seeking help me?
How can this page help me?
- Have you ever wondered why some people are attracted to intense, sometimes fear-inducing thrills while others recoil from them?
- How can the same horror movie can be a torturous experience to one person and a favourite form of entertainment to another?
- Is there something different going on inside the brains of these different people?
What is sensation seeking?
Sensation seeking: “a trait describing the tendency to seek novel, varied, complex and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take risks for such experience” (Zuckerman, 1994, p. i).
The Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS) developed in the 1960s was the first operationalised measure of sensation seeking (Zuckerman, Kolin, Price, & Zoob, 1964). Since then, the theory behind the trait has developed with research.
Sensation seeking scores from the SSS have been linked to many risk-taking behavioural expressions. These include (Zuckerman, 1994):
- driving habits
- financial activities
- alcohol and drug use
- sexual behaviour and
Sensation seeking is also involved in (Zuckerman, 1994):
- vocational preferences and job choices
- job satisfaction
- eating habits and food preferences
- media and art preferences
- fantasy and creativity and
- social attitudes
Understanding one’s own and others’ tendency towards sensation seeking can help in all of these areas. This chapter will give an overview of the research on each of these aspects and summarise the practical implications of the research.
Measuring sensation seeking
The Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS) is a self-report questionnaire developed by Zuckerman (1971). The scale measures the presence of four dimensions of sensation seeking in the participant including:
- boredom susceptibility
- thrill and adventure seeking
- experience seeking
The SSS gives an overall accumulative score for each of the four dimensions. The scores then rank the behavioural tendencies of the participant, with low scores (LSS) and higher scores (HSS; Walker & Broughton, 2009).
Am I a sensation seeker?
Complete this questionnaire to test your tendency towards varied, novel and intense sensations. This questionnaire is based on the SSS designed by Zuckerman (1971). Please chose either the answer that best describes yourself or mark the choice that you dislike the least.
NOTE: Answer the questions from each section before selecting 'submit'.
Section 1: Disinhibition
The desire for social and sexual disinhibition as expressed in social drinking, partying, and variety in sexual partners.
Aversion to repetition, routine, and dull people, and restlessness when things are unchanging.
Desire to engage in sports or other activities involving speed or danger.
The seeking of experiences through the mind and senses, travel, and a nonconforming life-style.
The development of sensation seeking theory
The goal of sensation seeking behaviour is to increase stimulation. Several different approaches have attempted to provide an explanation for this behaviour.
Instinct, drive and need approaches
Freud (1915/1957) grouped instincts into two categories:
- those serving life (e.g. sex, hunger, thirst and pain avoidance); and
- those serving death (an expression of a conscious/unconscious wish to die)
as the ultimate aim. These death needs, which include sensation seeking, were regarded as displacements or sublimations. Finally, Freud also explained them as an attempt to deny fear by building tensions in order to increase pleasure with tension reduction.
Hull’s (1943) Drive Theory postulates that behaviour is driven in order to met a person’s physiological needs. It states that drive is the psychological impetus that energises, directs and motivates behaviour in order to satisfy physiological needs. Internal states of deprivation are deemed unpleasant and any behaviour that reduces unpleasant feelings associated with deprivation will be learnt and repeated. Drive Theory specified that behaviour could be predicted because a person would be motivated to engage in that behaviour which satisfied physiological needs (Deckers, 2005).
Following Drive Theory, Murray (1938) classified personality traits by the needs underlying them. Murray regarded all needs to have their origins in "tensions in the brain". Types of needs associated with sensation seeking include sex, sentience (need for sensation), exhibitionism and play. Other relevant needs relate to broad cognitive styles including change or sameness, impulsion or deliberation, and conjunctivity (organised response) or disjunctivity (disorganised response) (Zuckerman, 1994).
- Sensation seeking behaviour often arises from a state of low arousal and it is an increase in arousal, not a reduction in arousal, that is the goal state. This pattern is opposite that of other primary drives.
- Maslow’s (1954) self-actualisation theory also challenged these theories with the idea that mature needs such as self-actualisation are the outcome of a maturational development representing a search for growth and change rather than some kind of drive reduction. Peak experiences, as described by Maslow, are often novel and quite arousing.
Optimal level of arousal
Optimal arousal theory suggested that the increase of cortical arousal was the motive behind all types of stimulus seeking activity (Zuckerman, 1974). It was assumed that the Optimal Level of Arousal (OLA) of HSS is greater than that of LSS, and that HSS function best at a high level of arousal. According to Lee, every person tries to reach an optimal level of arousal from the environment. Too little stimulation causes a person to be bored while too much stimulation causes anxiety which would lead to sensation seeking. Csikszentmihalyi (1998) furthered this theory by looking at how the challenge level of the stimulus and the skill level of the person can affect one's mental state.
Individual difference theories
Individual difference theories explained differences in personality traits in terms of brain physiology (Zuckerman, 1994):
- Pavlov (1927/1960) explained temperaments on the basis of innate strengths of excitatory and inhibitory processes in the cortex, the balance between these two types of processes, and their ease of shift from one to another;
- Eysenck (1967) developed a three-factor ultimate trait system and considered sensation seeking to be a part of extraversion.
However, since 1979, the research on sensation seeking has centred around the biological theory that genetic programs influencing the biochemistry of the central nervous system were the basis of the trait (Zuckerman, 1994). This is because differences in activity of brain catecholamine systems were found to influence arousability of the higher cortical centres (Zuckerman, 1979).
Although environment might determine the particular forms of expression of the trait, the amount of variation in stimulation received during infancy and childhood could also influence the development of the trait (Schaffer, 1971).
The biological approach
The Monoamine Hypothesis
The most reliable link between biochemical brain events and the sensation seeking trait is that HSS have low levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO) (Zuckerman, 1994). MAO is a limbic system enzyme with a strong genetic determination. It is involved in breaking down brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine contributes to the experiences of reward and therefore facilitates approach behaviours (Stellar & Stellar, 1985). Serotonin contributes to a biological inhibition, and to the brains physiological “stop” system, which therefore inhibits approach behaviours (Zuckerman, 1994).
Zuckerman (2006) found that HSS tend to have high levels of dopamine which means that their biochemistry favours approach over inhibition. Furthermore, they also tend to have relatively low levels of serotonin, resulting in their biochemistry failing to inhibit them from risks and new experiences. Low levels of MAO as in HSS have also been linked to paraphilias (Kafka, 1997), tobacco, drug and alcohol use (Zuckerman, 1994).
A hormone responsive to stress, cortisol, is negatively related to HSS, suggesting that low cortisol activity may explain the tendency for HSS to have less symptomatic effects of stress (Balenger, 1983). Gonadal hormones in males are also related to sensation seeking, particularly disinhibition (Zuckerman, 1994). This may account for sex differences in sensation seeking . Gonadal hormones are also inversely related to socialisation and self-control, which are traits characteristic of LSS (Zuckerman, 1994).
Sensation seeking in relation to other dimensions of personality
Costa and McCrae's (1985) NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI) was designed around a five-factor model of personality. The five fundamental factors measured by the scale include extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Costa, McCrae and Dye (1990) found openness to experience to be the strongest correlate to the experience-seeking part of sensation seeking. A slight positive correlation with extraversion was also found. Other sensation seeking factors, such as disinhibition, were found to be negatively correlated with sensation seeking.
Analysis of the NEO-PI factors correlated with sensation confirmed previous findings from other scales measuring similar constructs (Zuckerman, 1994). From this, it can be said that HSS are people who are open to new experiences, particularly in terms of values, actions and fantasies. Furthermore, they tend to be excitement seeking, and tend to easily express and experience their emotions.
Sensation seeking has been associated to a brain chemistry profile which generates a drive for stimulation and novel experiences. This neuroendocrinological profile is usually found in males more than in females (Zuckerman, 2005). In twin studies, sensation seeking tends to be higher in males than in females. Furthermore, it appears that in utero hormonal influences on later behavioural development influence sensation seeking (Resnick, Gottesman, & McGue, 1993).
Sensation seeking is also correlated with age. Sensation seeking increases between childhood and adolescence; it peaks in adolescence and declines with age (Steinberg, Albert, Cauffman, Banich, Graham, & Woolard, 2008).
As a result, individuals who are sensation seekers are most likely to be males who are adolescents or young adults.
This has also been shown to occur across cultures - between English and American samples (Zuckerman & Eysenck, 1978). However, further research is needed to look at the differences between Eastern and Western cultures.
Risks related to sensation seeking may be physical, social, financial or legal. HSS are not attracted to these risks but they see sensations and experiences as being worth these risks, while LSS do not (Zuckerman, 1994). Therefore it would be most appropriate to label HSS as "risk accepting" rather than "risk-taking".
Sensation seeking is a primary factor of a risk-taking personality (Zuckerman, 2001). There is a risk-taking continuum, with an antisocial personality at the negative end, prosocial personality at the positive end, and an intermediate point in the centre (Wymer, Self, & Findley, 2008). Sensation seekers at the negative end of the continuum are likely to engage in criminal activities or self destructive behaviours, including drug use, promiscuity, and suicide attempts (Zuckerman, 2000; Slater, 2003). Sensation seekers at the positive end of the continuum may be fire fighters or emergency responders and those in the middle who are neither prosocial nor antisocial may be sensation seekers participating in extreme sports (Zuckerman, 2000).
High sensation seekers are not necessarily at risk for antisocial behaviour. Other biological traits appear to be important in addition to high sensation seeking personality traits (Zuckerman, 2006). For example, for a HSS who is also high in impulsivity, there is a strong relationship with early initiation of sexual activity, number of partners, and use of alcohol or drugs in conjunction with sex (Zuckerman, 2006).
Sensation seekers are likely to be involved in sports, especially sports requiring risk-taking (Rowland, Fianken, & Harrison, 1986). Extreme sports are sports which include risk-taking as well as skill and athleticism. Extreme sport participants tend to be male sensation seekers (Krisztina, 2006). Several researchers have found extreme sports to be associated with sensation seekers, including skydiving, hang-gliding, rock or ice climbing, whitewater rafting or kayaking, and bungee jumping (Roberts, 1994; Zuckerman, 2000).
Sensation seeking is one of the many traits involved in vocational selection. Some research has found that (Perone, DeWard, & Baron, 1979):
- Risky vocations attract HSS
- HSS are more likely to quit their jobs
- HSS function best in jobs where they are challenged with varying activities
- LSS function best with predictability and routine
Try this online career test to assess your personality traits to help you decide what job is right for you: Career One Personality Profile Test
Comprehending the differences in the way high and low sensation seekers tend behave socially may be useful in understanding and managing one's own social relations.
HSS seem to enjoy and dominate social interactions as it reduces the stress of confinement for them (Zuckerman, 1994). There are multiple notable differences between HSS and LSS that have been supported by research:
Hendrick and Hendrick (1986) found that among the six styles of love, HSS tend to favour the 'Ludus' style, which sees love as a game without strong commitment. LSS were found to favour the 'Pragma' style, which considers the long term potentialities of a partner, more than his or her arousing values. Also, romantic couples tend to have correlated levels of sensation seeking - with sensation seeking being slightly higher for relationship satisfaction in women than in men.
HSS of both sexes have been to have more permissive attitudes towards sex and engage in more varied types of sexual experiences than LSS (Wymer, Self, & Findley, 2008). Zuckerman (1994) found that young married women who are HSS are more hyperarousable and desire sex more often than LSS, however, LSS report more marital and sexual satisfaction. In contrast, Zuckerman found that social deviance and risk taking in sexuality (use of contraception) have not been found to be related to sensation seeking.
HSS tend to be attracted to others that they perceive to be dissimilar from themselves, while LSS prefer the company of those who are similar to themselves (Zuckerman, 1994). Furthermore, HSS value difference and conflict as a source of arousal, while LSS tend to avoid controversies. In love, Franken, Gibson & Mohan, (1990) found that HSS tend to display less relationship satisfaction in terms of liking and loving than LSS. Among married couples, two LSS are more compatible than two HSS.
HSS have leadership potential. HSS tend to be original and innovative in open-ended problem solving (Zuckerman, 1994). HSS are also likely to dominate social situations, engage in a great deal of self-disclosure, and encourage self-disclosure from others (Zuckerman, 1994). Sensation seekers are often trend setters because they are socially dominant and are risk takers (Workman & Studak, 2006). Leaders are confronted with risky decisions often and must be willing to accept a level of risk to reach goals (Kowert & Hermann, 1997).
Self-disclosure from strangers can be uncomfortable. It may be even more uncomfortable for another to demand self-disclosure from you. HSS seekers tend to engage in more self-disclosure and also encourage more self-disclosure in both casual and close friends (Franken, Gibson & Mohan, 1990).
HSS are more effective in their non-verbal responses including eye gaze; posture; pattern of vocalisation and are more spontaneous and emotionally expressive (Thornquist, 1991). HSS women tend to gaze more at their partners than LSS, resulting in eliciting gaze and speech from their partners (Thornquist, 1991).
Vicarious experience: Art, media, music, fantasy and humour
Much of the research in this area supported the optimal level of arousal theory which hypothesised that HSS are motivated towards novel experiences and activities in order to avoid the decline in arousal produced by repetition (Lee, 1996).
Please take a moment to reflect upon which item you prefer from the following media pairs.
NOTE: Answers judged as 'correct' are an indication of high sensation preference; and answers judged as 'incorrect' are an indication of low sensation preference.
HSS tend to have a preference towards complex and ambiguous (as in complex and ambiguous art) and intense (as in rock music) stimuli as they produce more arousal; while LSS tend to prefer, calming, low tension art and music (Zuckerman, 1994).
In general, real life is more arousing than vicarious experience. Research has found that for LSS, vicarious experience may provide the level of arousal they desire (actual experience may be unpleasant). For example, LSS tend to prefer to watch music performances on television while HSS prefer to listen to 'live music' in exciting surroundings (Watson, Anderson, & Schulte, 1977). Furthermore:
- Based on self-reports and observation, HSS are likely to switch television channels significantly more often than LSS and keep track of multiple programs simultaneously (Schierman & Rowland, 1985).
- In photographs, television, films and reading, HSS show a greater preference for morbid and sexual themes - LSS tend to find them distasteful and avoid them (Banerjee, Greene, Krcmar, Bagdasarov, & Ruginyte, 2008).
- HSS are more likely to be found amongst those attending explicit films and horror films (Zuckerman, 1994).
An awareness of the different kinds of media preferences in HSS and LSS has been valuable in the design of media messages aimed at discouraging drug abuse, recruiting volunteers and film marketing (Wymer, Self, & Findley, 2008; Zuckerman, 1994).
- There is some evidence of a negative relationship between daydreaming and sensation seeking (Franken & Rowland, 1990).
- When HSS do daydream, their fantasies are most likely to be about extravagant hedonic fulfilment in areas such sex, travel and fast driving (Franken & Rowland, 1990).
- HSS tend to like nonsense humour (where the resolutions are still incongruous or absurd) while LSS like humour in which the punchline neatly ties things up (as in misunderstandings of words or intentions) (Ruch, 1988).
Smoking, drinking, drugs and eating
Tobacco is often the first drug to be abused. Although fewer people smoke now than 30 years ago, the relationship between smoking and HSS is still significant - both sexes of HSS smoke more than LSS. This relationship has been found cross-culturally (Zuckerman, 1994).
Drinking and Drugs
Sensation seeking is related to alcohol and drug abuse in adolescence, with early adolescent sensation seeking trait predicting later substance use (Wood, 1995). Marijuana tends to be the first illegal drug used and is favoured among young HSS (Wood, 1995).
Back (1981) found that HSS in both Western countries and Japan tend to enjoy foods that are spicy and novel to their culture. In contrary, LSS prefer bland, sweet foods. HSS are more willing to try new foods, even those which are very unusual which LSS may regard as 'disgusting'.
Optimal Level of Arousal theory and drugs
Optimal arousal theory predicts that sensation seeking would be positively related to the use of stimulant drugs and negatively related to the use of depressants. However, cumulative evidence suggests that sensation seeking is related to the extent of illegal drug use and variety of drugs used rather than the use of specific classes of drugs (Zuckerman, 1994).
After reading this chapter you should have a good understanding of where you are on the sensation seeking spectrum and you should be able to start applying this knowledge to various aspects of your life including:
- Arousal (Book chapter, 2010)
- Risk taking (Book chapter, 2011)
- Eating and emotion (Book chapter, 2011)
- Sexual Motivation (Book chapter, 2011)
- Addiction (Book chapter, 2011)
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