Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Sensation seeking and alcohol

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Sensation seeking and alcohol:
What is the role of sensation seeking in alcohol use?

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter examines sensation seeking and alcohol use. The main question focuses on the role of sensation seeking as an influence of alcohol use. By reading this page, the audience should be able to have a clear understanding of:

  • The development and new theories of sensation seeking,
  • The measurement of the sensation seeking,
  • The four dimensions found in sensation seeking.

Secondly the reader will understand the problem related to the use of alcohol in today's society.

At the end, this page will discuss empirical studies about the role of sensation seeking in the use of alcohol.

Example of a sensation seeker

What is sensation seeking?[edit | edit source]

The concept of sensation seeking was developed by Zuckerman back in 1970s and it is believed that this topic has attracted a number of researchers (Arnett, 1994). According to Zuckerman (1994), sensation seeking is a trait that is defined by the need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience.

Many studies have regarded sensation seeking as an aspect of other traits such as extraversion (Zuckerman & Bone, 1972). A number of studies have used sensation seeking to explain certain risky behaviors, for instance:

  • Alcohol use,
  • Unprotected sex,
  • Dangerous driving,
  • Bungee jumping
  • Mountain climbing
  • Sky diving
  • Drug use
  • Minor criminality.

Sensation seeking can be manifest in a wide variety of intense behaviours such as sensory, social and thrill activity (Zuckerman, 1971). To understand sensation seeking, it is important to have a look at its origin and how it is correlated with personality traits.

Development theory[edit | edit source]

There have been a number of theories that can be traced back in relation to sensation seeking theory. Some of these theories include instinct, drive, and need approaches, optimal level of stimulation and arousal, stimulus change and arousability theories, individual difference theories and biological theories.

Instincts, drive, and need approaches[edit | edit source]

Zuckerman (1994) highlights that instinct, drive and need approach theory have exemplified some characteristics of [missing something?] sensation seeking concept. With this theory, Freud divided instinct theory into groups. Which are, those serving live and those serving death as an ultimate goal (Zuckerman, 1994). Life instinct consists of pain avoidance, sex, hunger and thirst. Conversely the death instinct manifested in a constant tension reduction need as a result of the conflict or interaction of the conscious and unconscious state. Zuckerman (1994), points out that Freud and Hull’s drive theory has its origin in innate physiological tensions where drive is primarily appetitive. It is understood that a way to reduce these needs should be learned.

After the drive reduction theories, Henry Murray’s approach was that most needs originated from tensions in the brain. Some of these needs were believed to begin in peripheral visceral tensions and they were called viscerogenic needs while other needs were independent of visceral tensions and called psychogenic. It is understood that some of Murray’s needs have been correlated with sensation seeking (Zuckerman, 1994). For example, sex and sentience (need for sensation) were categorized as viscerogenic needs and exhibitionism and play (need for sensation) were classified as psychogenic.

Optimal level of stimulation and arousal[edit | edit source]

The optimal level of stimulation and arousal theory OSL suggested that individual behavior is influenced by the intrinsically motivated desire to accomplish a specific level of stimulation (Orth, 2005). It is believed that when the stimulation is too high, this will lead one to decrease the stimulation and when it is too low, one will increase it. In other words, too little stimulation leads to sensation seeking and too much leads to sensation reduction (avoidance) (Zuckerman, 1994).

Individualism difference theories[edit | edit source]

There are two main historical figures that developed the individualism difference theories. These are Pavlov and Eysenck.

Pavlov looked at temperament as strength (of excitation) of the nervous system, which he defined as the capacity of brain neurons to continue to function under strong, prolonged, or recurrent stimulation without triggering protective inhibition mechanism (Zuckerman, 1994).

Eyesenck’s theory integrated both Hull’s drive theory and Pavlov’s excitatory and inhibitory properties of the nervous system. His theory looked at the main trait of introversion and extraversion. Extraverted people were characterized by a great strength of inhibition as a result of the reaction to repetitive stimulation and introverted people were characterized by excess of excitation. As a result of this, it is believed that extraverted people would tend to be sensation seekers and introverted people would tend to be sensation reducers (Zuckerman, 1994).

Although sensation seeking can be traced back to a number of theories, it is worth pointing out that there have been more recent theories that have emerged to try to explain sensation seeking. Some of the new theories are biological and social environment theories.

New Theories[edit | edit source]

Biological[edit | edit source]

An image of limbic system

A number of new biological studies have tried to emphasize the influence of biological factors on sensation seeking. Some of these findings have found that biological factors are correlates with sensation seeking. It is understood that the correlation is found from four disciplines, which are behavior genetics, neuropsychology, biological psychiatry and psychopathology (Zuckerman, 1994). However Monoamines oxidase has appeared to be the most popular biological explanation between sensation seeking and biological factors (Hittner & Swickert, 2006). Reeve (2009) describes monoamines oxidase (MAO) as a limbic system enzyme that is involved in the metabolic breakdown of the monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain. It is believed that most studies have regarded MAO as a direct marker for the serotonergic system because it is localized in heavily serotonergic areas of the brain (Zuckerman, 1994). It is also understood that MAO plays a major role in regulating levels of monoamines, for instance dopamine and norepinephrine in breaking them down either after reuptake, or in the synaptic cleft (Hittner & Swickert, 2006). Therefore as a result of findings from a number of studies, it is concluded that MAO type B is correlated with sensation seeking.

Social Learning[edit | edit source]

Example of Where sensation seekers choose adventurous people like them

Authors, like Zuckerman, have argued that people are exposed to various behaviors in social environments such as being aggressive or sensation seeking. For example it has been noticed that people who are high sensation seekers tend to be attracted to date or marry other high sensation seekers and people with low sensation seeking tend to be attracted to lower sensation seekers as well (Oberstein & Cohen, 1984). Also it is understood that people with high sensation seeking will choose peers who are as equally adventurous as them (Roberti, 2004). Therefore, as a result of mating and peer examples shown above, it is believed that both cases are perfect examples that demonstrate how the genotype is correlated with environment (Zuckerman, 1994).

Measurement of sensation seeking[edit | edit source]

A number of sensations seeking measures have been developed to assess individual differences in optimal levels of stimulation or arousal. However sensation seeking scale SSS form V has come to be regarded as the most important type of sensation seeking measurement (Cross et al., 2011). The main reasons why SSS form V is commonly used are its validity and reliability and also because it determines an individual’s behavioral expressions of sensation seeking traits (Roberti, 2004). When conducting an SSS test, participants are asked questions such as whether they would like to try adventurous activities, participate in extreme sports or travel to remote places, whether they enjoy loud parties and speaking in front of groups, whether they dislike dull or repetitive activities for instance standing in lines (Cross, et al., 2011). In addition, it is believed that if someone scores high on self report measures of sensation seeking there is a high probability they will engage in risky activities (Cross et al, .2011) A factor analysis of the SSS has yielded four sensation seeking dimensions (Oberstein & Cohen, 1984).

Dimensions of sensation seeking[edit | edit source]

The four sensation seeking dimensions are thrill and adventure seeking, experience seeking, disinhibition, and boredom susceptibility:

  • The thrill and adventure seeking (TAS) is believed to be a component that is in charge of activities that involve speed or danger or express a desire to engage in outdoor sports. For example cliff diving or downhill skiing (Zuckerman et al., 1972)
  • Experience seeking ES is regarded as the need for novel personal or inner experiences (Hittner & Swickert, 2006). The inner experiences can be achieved through travel, drug, music, art and unconventional style of life (Zuckerman et al., 1972).
  • Disinhibition DIS is understood to be characterised by the expression of reduced social restrain. Hittner & Swickert (2006) point out that people who are perceived to have this behavioral tendency are less constrained by societal norms and expectations and so they are more experimental with regard to their behavior. People with high disinhibition are believed to have many sexual partner and are more likely to like gambling (Zuckerman, 1972)
  • Boredom susceptibility BS is understood to indicate when a person dislikes anything routine or predictable (Hittner & Swickert, 2006). It is believed that people high in BS seek new experience and they always look for new people with whom to share such experiences.

Quizzes from SSS form V[edit | edit source]

The questionnaires below, were taken from SSS form V designed by Zuckerman (1994). Participants are instructed to answer every question before selecting 'submit'. At the end, participants should add up their scores from each section together to get their overall sensation-seeking score.

Section 1: TAS

In charge of activities that involve speed or danger or express a desire to engage in outdoor sports.


I would like to take up the sport of water skiing.
I would not like to take up water skiing.


I prefer the surface of water to the depths.
I would like to go scuba diving.


I would like to try parachute jumping.
I would never want to try jumping out of a plane.


I often wish i could be a mountain climber.
I can not understand people who risk their necks climbing mountains.

Section 2: ES

Need for novel personal or inner experiences.


I dislike all body odors.
I like some of the earthy body smells


I have tried marijuana or would like to.
I would never smoke marijuana.


I would not like to try any drug which might produce strange and dangerous effects on me.
I would like to try some of the drugs that produce hallucinations.


People should dress according to some standard of taste, neatness, and style.
People should dress in individual ways even if the effects are sometimes strange

Section 3: Dis

characterised by the expression of reduced social restrain.


I am not interested in in experience for its own sake.
I like to have new and exciting experiences and sensations even if they are a little frightening, unconventional, or illegal.


I like to date persons who are physically exciting.
I like to date persons who share my value.


Heavy drinking usually ruins a party because some people get loud and boisterous.
Keeping the drinks full is the key to a good party.


There is altogether too much portrayal of sex movies.
I enjoy watching many of the "sexy" scenes in movies.

Section 4: BS

Indicate when a person dislikes anything routine or predictable.


I have no patience with dull or boring persons.
I find something interesting in almost every person i talk to.


I get bored seeing the same old faces.
I like the comfortable familiarity of everyday friends.


I usually do not enjoy a movie or play where i can predict what will happen in advance.
I do not mind watching a movie or play where I can predict what will happen in advance.


The worst social seen sin is to be rude
The worst social seen is to be a bore.

The problem of alcohol use[edit | edit source]

Car accident is one of the problems related to alcohol use

The problems related to alcohol have attracted a number of studies because these problems have been regarded as a major issue in today’s society (Slutske, 2005; Wechsler et al., 2005). It is understood that researchers have found that alcohol is related to more than 60 different medical conditions (Room et al., 2005). For instance, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism NIAAA (NIAAA, 2013) released statistics for alcohol use among university students. These figure showed that:

  • Death: 1825 college students die each year from cases related to alcohol consumption.
  • Assault: more than 690000 students are assaulted each year as a result of alcohol excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Sexual abuse: it is estimated that more than 97000 students are sexually abused due to excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Injuries: about 599000 students are injured in alcoholic related incident
  • Other health problems such as suicide attempts have been estimated to be around 150000.

Other studies have also supported the findings from NIAAA and they have highlighted that other diseases such as cancer and heart diseases are more common in people who drink alcohol (Rehm et al., 2003). As a result of the problems caused by alcohol a number of researchers have emphasized that alcohol should be regarded as a major health problem (Slutske, 2005; Wechsler et al., 2005).

Alcohol problems are not limited to health issues and include social problems such as violent behavior. One of the typical examples where alcohol is related to violence is domestic violence. There have been a number of studies that have highlighted the influence of alcohol on domestic violence (Denson et al., 2008). It is believed that alcohol motivates aggressive behavior by reducing someone’s awareness and by aiming his or her attention to provocation (Chan, 2005). Chan (2005) cite Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy (2001) and Bennett & Lawson (1994) to highlight that about 40% of women in Australia were abused as a result of alcohol and about 41% to 80% women were domestically abused in the United States due to alcohol consumption. Therefore, alcohol is involved in a number of issues in today’s society such as poor health and social problems.

The role of sensation seeking and alcohol use[edit | edit source]

Findings from several studies have emphasized the role of sensation seeking and alcohol use (Sher, 1994). It is believed that individuals who are high in sensation seeking are sensitive to the rewarding properties of alcohol and often attempt to maximize their enjoyment of alcohol or other risky drinking behaviors (Mackinnon et al., 2024). For instance, Quinn et al. (2012) found that higher sensation seeking in high school predicted a greater increases in heavy drinking[Rewrite to improve clarity].

In addition, Zuckerman (1994) cites Galizio, Gertenhaber and Friedensen to have found in their studies that high sensation seekers were more like to associate in[Rewrite to improve clarity] drinking behavior than low sensation seekers. Studies have found that different dimensions of sensation seeking[explain?] were strongly predictors of future alcohol use. For example Disinhibition was believed to be a [grammar?] general alcohol use in both sex and Thrill and Adventure Seeking was thought to be a predictor for moderate alcohol consumption in boys (Charu & Arora, 2008). Sensation seeking has a significant impact on alcohol use. There are many reasons that explain why sensation seeking is positively associated with alcohol use. Some of the main reasons behind this association include both biological and environmental factors (Hittner & Swickert, 2006).

Biological explanation of sensation seeking and alcohol use[edit | edit source]

A number of studies have tried to look as why is that a sensation seeker is more likely to engage in drinking behavior. A main finding that has seemed to appear in many studied is that sensation seeking is negatively correlated with platelets levels MAO (Hittner & Swickert, 2006, Mackinnon et al., 2014, Sher et al., 1994). This means that people that are found to be low in platelet MAO were more likely to engage in alcohol use than people with high platelet MAO. The negative correlation between sensation seeking and MAO is thought to be due, in large part, to the positive correlation between sensation seeking and dopamine (Zuckerman, 1994). It is believed that the elevated level of dopamine might lead high sensation seekers to become heavy drinkers for two main reasons (Hittner & Swickert, 2006):

  • It is understood that dopamine motivates appetitive reward seeking behavior, particularly when the rewards are biologically (intrinsically) reinforcing
  • It is believed that alcohol use stimulates dopamine release in the central area of the brain’s reward system

It is believed that the release of dopamine is biologically rewarding thereby encouraging alcohol consumption in the future.

In addition to the above example, researchers have also used animal studies to support the concept that MAO plays a keys role in alcohol use. Recent animal studies with rhesus monkeys suggested that a less pronounced response to alcohol is related to high alcohol use and that alcohol sensitivity is heritable to some degree (Wargelius et al., 2010). Monkeys with low platelet MAO activity were associated with lower levels of ataxia (Wargelius et al., 2010). As a result of the above findings about the negative relationship between sensation seeking and MAO, it is understood that the various studies have emphasized the concept that MAO is a biological maker for personality especially in relation to vulnerability for alcoholism (Whitfield et al., 2000).

However although a number of studies have emphasized the relation between the use of alcohol and MAO, it is worth noting that these studies have highlighted that low MAO is only related to the early onset of alcoholism called type 2 alcoholism (Oreland, 2004 & Whitfield et al., 2000). Type 2 alcoholism is believed to have a number of personality traits such as sensation seeking, impulsiveness and extraversion (Oreland, 2004). Where as type 1 is regarded to have a low genetic load for alcoholism and have few social complications (Oreland, 2004). So the above examples are perfect cases that explain why sensation seekers are associated with high alcohol consumption.

Social environment explanation of sensation seeking and alcohol use[edit | edit source]

As said above another explanation of why high sensation seeking is correlated with alcohol use is because of as environment (or social) factors. Sensation seeking has been regarded as a strong predictor of alcohol use among adolescents in particularly social environment (Yanovitzky, 2005). There have been a number of theories put forward to support this view. Some of these theories include, social control theory as well as problem behavior theory (Yanovitzky, 2005).

  • Social control theory point out that weak family or school attachment will lead one to associate with deviant peers which in turn will lead to alcohol use
  • Similarly, problem behavior theory states that adolescent’s proneness to alcohol use will be a function of the stability between protective or risk factor

To summarize the two theories Stacy et al. (1991) suggested that low social support or high emotional distress may suggest a failure of a person’s needs through conventional methods of attainment as well as social transactions. It is believed that this failure can lead one toward risky or socially proscribed methods of obtaining desired goals. Through this, it is arguable that wanting to obtain the desired goals in the social environment may have a significant impact on one’s behavior by getting involved in risk taking or novelty activities in a group of people with whom one is comfortable.

In fact it is believed that social environment has been the reason why many university students get involved in drinking behavior such as drinking games (Johnson & Crospey, 2000). It is thought that both female and male university students who were high in sensation seeking were more likely to engage in heavy drinking in a group because of peer pressures, for instance those who associated with deviant groups (Johnson & Crospey, 2000). Yanovitzky’s study (2006) also supported the proposition that sensation seeking personality traits affect an individual’s alcohol use by increasing college students’ susceptibility to overt and covert pressure from peers to use alcohol. Authors have argued that this may be related to the fact that sensation seekers select their friends (Yanovitzky, 2006). Zuckerman (1994) highlights that sensation seekers are more likely to select people who have the same level of sensation seeking as them.

A number of researchers have pointed out that risk taking activities while being intoxicated have also been correlated with the concept of conformity (sensation seeking) (Norman et al., 1998). Conformity is regarded as a belief to accord with others in a group (Myers, 2014). Due to this need, it is arguable that an individual will be motivated to maintain his/her social group place by drinking and participating in risk taking behavior or novelty activities. As a result of the above examples, one can argue that sensation seeking plays a key role in the likelihood of alcohol use in a social context (Yanovitzky, 2006).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Sensation seeking is strongly correlated with the use of alcohol [factual?] and this can be explained by including both biological and environment factors.

In reading this page, the audience should be able to have a clear understanding of:

  • The development and new theories of sensation sensations seeking.
  • The measurement of sensation of sensation seeking and its four dimensions
  • Health and social problems related to alcohol use.
  • Of how sensation seeking is related to alcohol use.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Arnett, J.(1994). Sensation seeking: A new conceptualization and a new scale. Person. Individ.Diff, 16, pp. 289-296

Chan, C. (2005). Alcohol Issues in domestic violence, Australian domestic and family violence clearinghouse.

Cross, C. P., Copping, L. T., & Campbell, A. (2011). Sex differences in impulsivity: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 137 (1), 97-130. doi:10.1037/a0021591

Denson, T., Aviles, F, Pollock, V., Earleywine, M., Vasquez, E., & Miller, N. (2008). The effects of alcohol and the salience of aggressive cues on triggered and displaced aggression, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 34, doi 10.1002

Dubey, C. & Arora, M. 2008. Sensation Seeking Level and Drug of Choice, Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, 34, No.1, 73-82.

Hittner, J & Swickert, R. (2006). Sensation seeking and alcohol use: A meta-analytic review, Department of Psychology, College of Charleston,doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2005.11.004

Johnson, T. J., & Cropsey, K. L. (2000). Sensation seeking and drinking game participation in heavy drinking college students. Addictive Behaviors, 24, 279–286.

Lesnik-Oberstein, M., & Cohen, L. (1984). Cognitive style, sensation seeking, and assortative mating. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 46(1), 112-117. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.46.1.112

Mackinnon, S. P., Kehayes, I.-L. L., Clark, R., Sherry, S. B., & Stewart, S. H. (2014). Testing the Four-Factor Model of Personality Vulnerability to Alcohol Misuse: A Three-Wave, One-Year Longitudinal Study. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors,doi:10.1037/a0037244.

Myers, D.G. (2014) Social Psychology. North Ryde, NSW: McGraw-Hill Education.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2013). College drinking [Fact sheet]. Retrieved from

Norman, P., Bennett, P., & Lewis, H. (1998). Understanding binge drinking among young people: An application of the theory of planned behaviour. Health education research, 13(2), 163-169. Retrieved from

Oreland, L. (2004). Platelet Monoamine Oxidase, Personality and Alcoholism: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection Department of Neuroscience, Unit of Pharmacology, University of Uppsala,doi:10.1016/S0161-813X

Orth, U. & Bourrain, A. (2005). Optimum Stimulation Level Theory and the Differential Impact of Olfactory Stimuli on Consumer Exploratory Tendencies, Oregon State University

Quinn, P. D., Stappenbeck, C. A., & Fromme, K. (2011). Collegiate heavy drinking prospectively predicts change in sensation seeking and impulsivity. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 120(3), 543-556. doi:10.1037/a0023159

Quinn, P., Stappenbeck, C. & Fromme, K. (2011). Collegiate Heavy Drinking prospectively predicts Change in Sensation Seeking and Impulsivity, J Abnorm Psychol, 120(3): 543–556. doi:10.1037/a0023159.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion. United States of America: John Willey &Sons, Inc.

Rehm, J., Gmel, G., Sempos, C. T., & Trevisan, M. (2003). Alcohol–related morbidity and mortality. Alcohol Res. Health, 140, C00-C97. Retrieved from

Room, R., Babor, T. & Rehm, J. (2005). Alcohol and public health, The Lancet, 365,Issue 9458,pp. 519–530.

Roth, M., & Hammelstein, P. (2012). The Need Inventory of Sensation Seeking (NISS). European Journal Of Psychological Assessment,28 (1), 11-18. doi:10.1027/1015-5759/a000085.

Sher, K., Bylund, D., Walitzer, K., Hartmann, J. & Prenger, C. (1994). Platelet Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) Activity: Personality, Substance Use, and the Stress-Response-Dampening Effect of Alcohol, Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2, (1). 53-81

Slutske, W. S. (2005). Alcohol use disorders among US college students and their non college-attending peers. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 62, 321-327. Retrieved from

Stacy, A., Newcomb, M. & Bentler, P. (1991). Social Psychological Influences on Sensation Seeking from Adolescence to Adulthood,Pers Soc Psychol Bull,
doi: 10.1177/0146167291176014.

Wargelius, H., Fahlke, C., Suomi, S., Oreland, L. & Higley, J. (2010). Platelet monoamine oxidase activity predicts alcohol sensitivity and voluntary alcohol intake in rhesus monkeys, Upsala Journal of Medical Sciences, doi:10.3109/03009731003605813.

Wechsler, H., Lee, J. E., Nelson, T. F., & Lee, H. (2003). Drinking and driving among college students: The influence of alcohol-control policies. American journal of preventive medicine, 25(3), 212-218. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(03)00199-5.

Whitfiel, J., Bucholz, P., Madden, P., Heath, A., Statham, D. & Martin, N. (2000). Monoamine oxidase: associations with alcohol dependence, smoking and other measures of psychopathology, Psychological Medicine,30, 443–454.

Yanovitzky, I. (2005). Sensation Seeking and Adolescent Drug Use: The Mediating Role of Association With Deviant Peers and Pro-Drug Discussions,Department of Communication Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Yanovitzky, I. (2006). Sensation Seeking and Alcohol Use by College Students: Examining Multiple Pathways of Effects, Journal of Health Communication,doi: 10.1080/10810730600613856/>

Zuckerman, M. (1971). Dimensions of sensation seeking, Journal of consulting and clinical Psychology, 36(1) 45-52.

Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioural Expressions and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking. New York, U.S.A.: Cambridge University Press.

Zuckerman, M., Bone, R. N., Neary, R., Mangelsdorff, D., & Brustman, B. (1972). What is the sensation seeker? Personality trait and experience correlates of the Sensation-Seeking Scales. Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology,39(2), 308-321.doi:10.1037/h0033398.