Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Sensation seeking and rock climbing

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Sensation seeking and rock climbing:
What role does sensation seeking play in the motivation for rock climbing?


"Stand at the base and look up at 3000 feet of blankness. It just looks like there's no way you can climb it. That's what you seek as a climber. You want to find something that looks absurd and figure out how to do it."- Tommy Caldwell, professional big wall free climber

Figure 1. An example of lead free-climbing where the climber uses equipment only as a protection mechanism to avoid big falls. The risks associated with this style of climbing are high.

One of the most notable contemporary rock climbers, Alex Honnold, has shocked the world with his successful free solos (climbing without any safety gear or partners) of El Capitan, a 7,569-foot wall in Yosemite Valley, U.S. One of the reasons Honnold's ascent of El Capitan has pushed him into mainstream consciousness is due to the undeniable fact that, without any safety gear to fall back on, one mistake on the big granite wall would end in certain death.

Though there are many types of rock climbing, each with it's own inherent challenges and risks, mistakes can and often do lead to serious injury and death in all rock climbing categories. The accident rate for climbing above 8,000 meters (such as Mount Everest) is 25 percent (Breivik, 1997) and 1955-2004 data has determined that over 29 percent of climbing accidents in Australia have been fatal (Sedgman, 2004). Additionally, millions of taxpayer dollars per year are spent on search and rescue missions for those who engage in adventure sports, such as rock climbing (Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodman, 2006). So, for a sport with such high personal and social consequences, one has to ask the question of why someone would engage in such an activity?

This chapter explores the positive and negative effects of sensation seeking as a motivating factor for engagement in rock climbing activities. It will do this by firstly describing what sensation seeking is and then examining how sensation seeking theory can be used to explain motivations into adventure sports such as rock climbing. By then investigating Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking scale, the Adventure Seeking Behavioural scale, and various other personality traits associated with sensation seeking theory, this chapter explores how this presents itself in a case study of Honnold. This chapter then explores whether sensation seeking works as a motivational trait for increasing or decreasing the level of risk associated with rock climbing activities.

Focus questions

  1. What is sensation seeking: Inherent or cultivated?
  2. How does sensation seeking motivate risk-taking behaviour such as rock climbing?
  3. How can sensation seeking be managed to lower the risks associated with rock climbing?

What is sensation seeking?[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Distinctive Features[edit]

Figure 2. An example of Big Wall climbing. Big wall climbing has increased risk because if the equipment fails, the fall is thousands of feet. Many climbing deaths have been from big wall falls.

Sensation seeking is a personality trait that is associated with an innate need to experience highly stimulating activities, often at times with associated personal, social, financial, physical or legal risks (Breivik, 1997; Llewellyn & Sanchez, 2008; Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodman, 2006). Sensation seeking, as a construct, moves beyond social behaviour, mood, cognitions and psychopathology, into the limbic system and brain structures (Zuckerman, 1994). When Honnold had MRI machine scans of his brain during an experiment in which non-sensation seekers were meant to have greater brain activity, his amygdala (the part of the brain associated with fear response) did not show any significant level of activity (MacKinnon, 2016). Additionally, when comparing his personality tests to another high sensation seeking male rock climber, Honnold continued to show high responses in sensation seeking scores (MacKinnon, 2016). The role of sensation seeking traits in high-risk activity engagement is well established, with all life preferences being influenced by these traits, including work, sport and even art preferences (Zuckerman, 1994). Additionally, during high-risk situations, sensation seekers have been shown to experience elevated positive mood alongside lowered fear, anxiety and risk appraisal (Breivik, 1997).

Is sensation seeking inherent or cultivated?[edit]

Within Zuckerman's research, the question of whether sensation seeking is an inherent biological trait or a cultivated motivational source is explored. The literature suggests that high sensation seekers start with the same physiological arousal deficit that pushes them to seek out highly stimulating activities, but it is environmental factors that determine whether the sensation seeker channels this physiological deficit into creative or delinquent activities (Zuckerman, 1994). Supporting this, research has also shown that there is a large connection between sensation seeking and Big Five personality traits such as contentiousness, which includes traits such as impulsivity (Llewellyn & Sanchez, 2008). Additionally, the example above in regards to Honnold and his brain structures also demonstrate that there is a biological basis for sensation seeking behaviour (MacKinnon, 2016).

However, there is much debate over whether biologically and physiologically driven forces, such as brain structures and personality can adequately explain sensation seeking behaviours. Within research into rock climbers, there has been debate over whether a significant personality profile exists. In a study of eight mountain climbers, their personality scores were compared to that of elite and sport climbers, amongst other non-climber related groups. The results found that climbers were likely to be reserved, impulsive, intelligent, expedient, self-sufficient, dominating and relaxed (Breivik, 1997). However, later research indicated that there was not any distinct personality profile in rock climbers, although those who showed higher scores of cooperativeness may decrease the risk of injury (Monasterio, Alamri & Mei-Dan, 2014). Reversal theory also indicates that sensations seeking in rock climbers is a balance between personality driven motivational states and experience throughout the lifetime (Caber & Albayrak, 2016), indicating that experience and choice also plays a role. Though the debate around whether sensation seeking is inherently part of an individual's design, or a developed trait due to experience and choice, currently the literature aligns best with Zuckerman's view that it is an interplay between physiological and psychological factors that decide how sensation seeking presents itself (Zuckerman, 1994).

How is sensation seeking measured?[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking scale[edit]

One of the most widely used measures of sensation seeking is that of Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking scale, which measures individuals[grammar?] levels of sensation seeking and arousal in four different scales alongside that of a total score (Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodamn, 2006). These four subscales include thrill and adventure seeking, boredom susceptibility, experience seeking and disinhibition (Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodamn, 2006). The theory behind this scale suggests that people who score high in sensation seeking required more arousal to stay stimulated, and as such are more likely to engage in novel, complex and intense sensational experiences, which are often linked into increased risk taking (Zuckerman, 2014).

An example of a shortened version of this scale can be found under the external links.

The Adventure Seeking Behavioural scale[edit]

In 2017 an Adventure Seeking scale was developed which was highly related to sensation seeking scores (Prochniak, & Hunter, 2017). Specifically, this scale was used to measure how individual people scored in highly stimulating wilderness activities and found that people who had lots of experience in adventure activities scored much higher than those who had minimal experience (Prochniak, & Hunter, 2017). What this means is that the Adventure Seeking scale links the sensation seeking scores from Zuckerman's scale directly with risk-taking scores linked to adventure activities, indicating that adventure activities may, in fact, be a component of the sensation-seeking construct (Prochniak & Hunter, 2017). However, this scale is not able to distinguish the risks associated with specific outdoor activities and can only measure adventure activities as a single construct (Prochniak, & Hunter, 2017). Additionally, this scale is specific to adventure activities and not other aspects of sensation seeking such as disinhibition and boredom (Prochniak, & Hunter, 2017).

Personality Trait theory[edit]

Numerous personality traits have been linked to high sensation seeking scores, however the literature around this has been quite mixed. In one study a questionnaire was designed to measure what traits are linked to higher risk taking behaviours in rock climbing. This Risk Taking in Rock Climbing Questionnaire also correlated with Zuckerman's Sensation Seeking scale and found that a higher total sensation seeking score and thrill and adventure subscale score were correlated with higher risk-taking, whilst the disinhibition score had a strong influence on physical risk taking behaviours (Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodamn, 2006). However, the study surprisingly found that constructs of control and physical risk taking were not significant (Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodamn, 2006). More interestingly though, the results of this study indicated that those who were deemed to be higher risk takers also scored higher in control constructs than those who scored in the lower risk category (Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodamn, 2006). Additionally, a study of Everest climbers' personality traits aligned with this view. The study concluded that the climbers scored extremely low in traits of control, guilt, anxiety and tension but extremely high in traits of ego strength, dominance, radicalism, self-sufficiency and independence (Breivik, 1997). However, when using the Temperament and Character Inventory on mountain climbers, no tightly defined personality traits were linked to activity participation (Monasterion, Alamri, Mei-Dan, 2014). This included no statistically significant links between risk taking and novelty seeking, sensation seeking or locus of control scores, however individuals with higher external locus of control scores and anxiety scores sustained more frequent and severe injuries (Monasterion, Alamri, Mei-Dan, 2014). This study suggested that higher scores in cooperative personality traits were correlated with a lower risk of injury (Monasterion, Alamri, Mei-Dan, 2014).

How does sensation seeking motivate rock climbing?[edit]

[Provide more detail]


Individuals with high sensation seeking scores have a need to engage in risky, complex and novel experiences (Zuckerman, 2014). As rock climbing is a physical sport which carries a high level of risk, danger and uncertainty, and often occurring in extremely remote environments, there is a crucial reliance on an individual's skill to navigate the challenges posed by the activity itself and the environment in which it is experienced (Delle Fave, Bassi, & Massimini, 2003). This means that though the motivations for engaging in rock climbing are more intricate then just sensation seeking or thrill-seeking (Kerr & Mackenzie, 2012), this section will focus primarily on how sensation seeking motivates people to engage in rock climbing activities.

The main role that sensation seeking plays in rock climbing motivation lies in activity selection and continual engagement. High sensation seeking scores alongside that of various other personality traits have been suggested as a strong general motivational force for continued engagement in climbing activities, however research has indicated that the higher the experience of the climber the higher their sensation seeking scores (Caber & Albayrak, 2016). There is an established difference in motivational type for climbers based on experience levels (Caber & Albayrak, 2016): For climbers with higher experience levels, intrinsic motivation, that is internal motivational forces such as mastery, was the driving force for continual activity (Caber & Albayrak, 2016), whereas beginners used more of an extrinsic motivational focus, that is external motivations such as physical reward (Caber & Albayrak, 2016). This suggests that people with high sensation seeking scores are more likely to engage in rock climbing activities due to the risk and novelty associated with the activity (Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodman, 2006; Breivik, 1997), however as their motivation changes to focus on intrinsic mastery and skill progression, so too does their need for more risky challenges. Research has also suggested that people who engage in high risks sports where more likely to have difficulty with processing their emotions and utilise the activity as a way to regulate control of their emotional selves (Woodamn, Hardy, Barlow, & Le Scanff), whereby during high-risk situations, sensation seekers experience positive feelings, lowered fear and anxiety and low-risk appraisal (Breivik, 1997). As such, as sensation seeking scores increase due to experience, the need for more challenging experiences to regulate emotional outputs and the innate needs associated with sensation seeking also increase, creating a motivational state called "flow".

Flow states[edit]

The optimal level of challenge and outcome is reliant on flow. Flow states are an ideal balance between the level of risk in an activity and the skill level of the individual to create a strived-for optimum state between the concepts of challenge and outcome (Delle Fave, Bassi, & Massimini, 2003). If the level of skill is higher than the challenge, individuals are prone to boredom, whereas if the challenge far outweighs the level of skill, an individual is prone to increased levels of anxiety and fear (Delle Fave, Bassi, & Massimini, 2003). Optimal flow states offer low levels of boredom but are not anxiety ridden experiences for the individuals involved (Delle Fave, Bassi, & Massimini, 2003). Sensation seeking allows rock climbers opportunity to strive for these flow states as a primary intrinsic motivation for mastery (Caber & Albayrak, 2016),[grammar?] As people high in sensation seeking are more likely to engage in rock climbing activity, the need for increased challenge is crucial to the enjoyment and continuation of the activity. This increased need for challenge however, also increases the level of risk associated with the sport. Increasing the level of safety in rock climbing has been indicated to decrease the level of risk associated in the sport, but due to the motivational influence sensation seeking plays in rock climbing engagement, lowered risk also lowers the intrinsic motivations of experienced climbers and thus their ability to reach flow states (Delle Fave, Bassi, & Massimini, 2003). Despite the assumption that lowered risk would increase the level of enjoyment within an activity, the high sensation seeking needs of rock climbers mean that risk-taking is a major motivational force for continual engagement which promotes intrinsic motivations, which in turn decrease the level of spontaneous risks associated with the activity and thus, it has been argued, makes rock climbing a safer activity (Llewellyn & Sanchez, 2008).

How can sensation seeking be managed to lower risks?[edit]

[Provide more detail]


Despite the fact that sensation seeking is often seen as recklessness, it has been argued that sensation seeking actually lowers the risks associated with rock climbing activities. A distinction between risk taking and a need for challenge has to be made in analysing sensation seeking and rock climbing (Delle Fave, Bassi, & Massimini, 2003). Research has shown that rock climbers take calculated risks based on perceptions of control (Llewellyn & Sanchez, 2008), developed by skill and experience (Caber, & Albayrak, 2016). These create credibility zones for social reinforcement (Langseth, & Salvesen, 2018) which determine whether individuals risk taking is socially credible or not (Langseth, & Salvesen, 2018). It is this perception of control that also determines, not just rock climbing risk, but why rock climbers may engage in high risk climbing activities but avoid other areas of risk in life (Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodamn, 2006).

Self-efficacy theory demonstrates how control perceptions allow climbers to gain personal achievement by controlling a risky environment (Llewellyn & Sanchez, 2008; Taylor, Gould, Hardy, & Woodamn, 2006). Because climbers describe their motivation for climbing as one based on internal control concepts, such as mastery and accomplishment, climbers with low internal locus of control demonstrated competitive trait anxiety and low cooperative traits, which increased their likelihood of experiencing injury, rather than sensation-seeking alone influencing injury outcomes (Monasterio, Alamri & Mei-Dan, 2014). This was further demonstrated in a study of elite sport climbers, whereby those who had controlled engagement (high perceptions of control) were more likely to be successful than their counterparts who rushed through hard sections (low perceptions of control) (Sanchez, Boschker & Llewellyn, 2010) . This explains why sensation seeking is an important concept in risk management through the risk-motivational cycle.

Risk-motivational cycle[edit]

The role that sensation seeking plays in rock climbing motivation is one of continual balance between perceived control and risk perception. As sensation seeking needs motivate rock climbing engagement, the involvement of risk taking develops self-efficacy and skill (Llewellyn & Sanchez 2008). This skill allows the rock climber to adequately evaluate the level of risk associated with their activity creating perceptions of control (Llewellyn & Sanchez 2008; Martha, Sanchez,& Goma-I-Freixanet). As those perceptions of control increase, so too does the need for higher risk taking to meet sensation seeking needs (Llewellyn & Sanchez 2008) resulting in continual skill development in the activity (Llewellyn & Sanchez 2008). This cycle of risk-motivation further lowers the serious risk associated with rock climbing, as it focuses on skill development and accurate risk appraisal. Though rock climbers have high sensation seeking motivational needs, this outputs into a controlled cycle of mastery rather than reckless risk taking.

Figure 3: This graphic demonstrates the continual role that sensation seeking has in rock climbing risk. As sensation seeking motivates skill development, higher risks need to be taken to satisfy sensation seeking needs.

Case Study: Alex Honnold[edit]

Honnold, famous for his free-solo ascents of big walls, has a biological predisposition towards sensation seeking and a personality that aligns with high sensation seeking traits (MacKinnon, 2016). Therefore, it is not surprising that Honnold engages in the rock climbing style that carries the greatest risk of serious injury. In further examining Honnald's case, having started in competitions, Honnold moved to Yosemite to engage in the climbing culture and develop his skills to live up to his idols (Honnold, & Roberts, 2018). This demonstrates not just the start of the risk-motivational cycle, but also the social motivational forces for risk engagement (Langseth, & Salvesen, 2018). Having already developed sound skills on the competition circuit, Honnold strove for appreciation and credibility from his fellow climbers and idols (Langseth, & Salvesen, 2018). To achieve this, Honnold used his motivational need for mastery, to develop a perception of control, which in turn allowed him to evaluate his skill against the risk posed by big wall free-soloing. Because of his success in doing this, coupled by his ability to control emotional states in high risk situations, Honnold was able to develop enjoyment for the experience (Breivik, 1997) and therefore strive for high risk situations to meet his sensation seeking needs. By then using the risk-motivational cycle to further develop his skill, and therefore intrinsic motivations, Honnold is able to continue to partake in high risk activity, with strong perceptions of control, based on his skill development. Furthermore, the more he engaged in high risk activity, the more he received acclimation for his work further feeding his motivational desire to continue.


Sensation seeking is a crucial component of why people engage in rock climbing despite the high statistics of serious injury associated with the activity. The foundations for why people have differing sensation seeking needs is currently still contested, however current literature suggests it is a mix of inherent and cultivated factors that determine someone's predisposition towards sensation seeking and how this expresses itself through behaviour. For rock climbers to have their sensation seeking needs met by engagement in the activity, higher risks need to be engaged as skills develop. This process creates a perception of control, whereby the climber wants to move to harder climbs due to developed skill and increased sensation seeking need. The climber aims for flow state, whereby skill and challenge are evenly met, providing the ultimate experience of lowered risk but higher sensation seeking fulfilment. Because of these factors, high sensation seeking needs can actually lower the risks associated with rock climbing engagement. By using the risk-motivational cycle, as climbing challenges become harder and more dangerous, the skills of the climber increase to be able to gain perceptions of control and mastery over the challenge and it's associated risks, matching risk and skill to achieve flow states. This has been demonstrated in the literature whereby climbers who do not effectively channel these needs are more prone to injury and less likely to succeed in climbing competitions. Sensation seeking motivates climbing engagement, but lowers the overall risk of serious injury and death, indicating that individual differences and environmental factors are more determinate factors in climbing injuries then sensation seeking motivation.

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Topic Review: Quiz Time!

1 Alex Honnold is famous for which type of climbing style?

Free climbing
Free solo climbing
Big wall trad climbing

2 Zuckerman developed which sensation seeking measurement?

The Adventure Behavioural Scale
The Sensation Seeking Scale
Personality trait tests

3 Rock climbing engagement addresses which need in climbers?

The need to take risks only
The need to gain approval by others
The need for novelty and risk associated with sensation seeking

See also[edit]


Breivik. G. (1997). Personality, sensation seeking and risk taking among Everest climbers. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 27(3), 308-320.

Caber. M., & Albayrak. T. (2016). Push or pull? Identifying rock climbing tourists' motivations. Journal of Tourism Management, 55, 74-84.

Delle Fave. A., Bassi. M., & Massimini. F. (2003). Quality of experience and risk taking perception in high-altitude rock climbing. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 15, 82-98.

Honnold. A., & Roberts. D. (2018).Alone on the Wall. Norton and Company. New York, USA.

Kerr. J. H., & Mackenzie. S. H. (2012). Multiple motives for participating in adventure sports. Psychology of Sport and Exercise Journal, 13, 649-657.

Langseth. T., & Salvesen. O. (2018). Rock climbing, risk and recognition. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1-10.

Llewellyn. D. J., & Sanchez. X. (2008). Individual differences and risk taking in rock climbing. Psychology of Sport and Exercise Journal, 9, 413-426.

MacKinnon. J. B., (2016). The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber. National Geographic, August 11, 2016.

Martha. C., Sanchez. X., & Goma-I-Freixanet. M. (2009). Risk perception as a function of risk exposure amongst rock climbers. Psychology of Sport and Exercise Journal, 10, 193-200.

Monasterio. E., Alamri. Y. A., Mei-Dan. O. (2014). Personality characteristics in a population of mountain climbers. Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 25, 214-219.

Prochniak. P., & Hunter. S. J. (2017). Adventure behaviour seeking scale. Journal of Behavioural Science, 7(2), 35-49.

Sanchez. X., Boschker. M. S. J., & Llewellyn. D. J. (2010). Pre-performance psychological states and performance in an elite climbing competition. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport, 20, 356-363.

Sedgman. I. B. (2004). Climbing accidents in Australia. Victorian Climbing Club, 1-18.

Taylor. M. K., Gould. D. R., Hardy. L., & Woodman. T. (2006). Factors influencing physical risk taking in rock climbing. Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments, 9(1), 15-26.

Woodman. T., Hardy. L., Barlow. M., & Le Scanff. C. (2010).Motives for participation in prolonged engagement high-risk sports: An agentic emotion regulation perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise Journal, 11, 345-352.

Zuckerman. M. (2014). Sensation seeking (psychology revivals): Beyond the optimal level of arousal, Taylor and Francis. London, United Kingdom.

Zuckerman. M. (1994). Behavioural expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking, Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. United Kingdom.

External links[edit]

Motivation and emotion/Book/2018 Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Adventure Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Mastery Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Sensation seeking