Sensation Seeking Definition
Sensation seeking is a personality trait defined by the degree to which an individual seeks novel and highly stimulating activities and experiences. People who are high in sensation seeking are attracted to the unknown and as a result consistently seek the new, varied, and unpredictable. Examples of such behaviors are varied, but sensation seekers may be attracted to extreme sports, frequent travel, diverse foods and music, new sexual partners and experiences, and challenging existing viewpoints. Often, sensation seekers are likely to be impulsive and engage in behaviors that others would find too risky. The risks may be physical (e.g., skydiving), social (e.g., risking embarrassment by dressing unusually), financial (e.g., gambling), or legal (e.g., vandalism). Because sensation seekers are easily bored, they actively avoid situations and activities likely to be overly repetitive and predictable.
Sensation Seeking Theory
Marvin Zuckerman originally developed the concept of sensation seeking and has contributed the most important research and relevant theory. Zuckerman’s work is especially noteworthy because of his firm and long-standing emphasis on the biological and evolutionary bases of sensation seeking (and personality more generally). Specifically, Zuckerman’s basic proposition is that sensation seeking is based on individual differences in the optimal level of sensation caused by biological nervous-system differences. People who are high in sensation seeking are individuals who have relatively low-level nervous system activation and therefore seek arousal from their external environment by looking for novel stimuli and engaging in varied experiences. In contrast, individuals who are low in sensation seeking have a naturally higher level of internal activation and thus do not tend to seek sensation from external sources. Zuckerman posits that sensation seeking is genetically influenced because it is evolutionary adaptive. Across the animal kingdom, engaging in a certain degree of risky behaviors will increase the likelihood of survival and reproductive success (e.g., seeking new territories for food and new potential mates).
Sensation Seeking Measurement
Zuckerman first created the Sensation Seeking Scale in 1964 to measure an individual’s overall level of susceptibility to excitement or boredom in the context of sensory deprivation experiments. Current versions of the self-report measure include four subscales: (1) Thrill and Adventure Seeking—the extent to which individuals engage in or are interested in participating in risky activities such as parachuting or skiing; (2) Experience Seeking—the degree to which one seeks excitement through the mind, such as from music, art, and travel; (3) Disinhibition—seeking sensations through social stimulation and disinhibitory behaviors such as drinking and sex; and (4) Boredom Susceptibility—avoiding monotonous, repetitive, and boring situations, people, and activities.
Zuckerman has generated an impressive amount of research on sensation seeking, and his biologically based approach to understanding personality and social behavior likely influences the current emphasis on behavioral genetics and neuroscience in social psychology. Research supports Zuckerman’s biologically based theory and has revealed that sensation seeking plays an important role in many social behaviors.
High sensation seekers have a stronger orienting response to new stimuli, and their physiological response is indicative of sensation seeking rather than avoidance (e.g., decreasing heart rate and increasing brain activity in the visual cortex). In addition, sensation seeking has been found to be related to levels of important brain neurotransmitters (e.g., monoamine oxidase, norepinephrine, and dopamine), which in turn have been found to be genetically influenced. Furthermore, studies of identical and fraternal twins have found sensation seeking to be one of the personality traits most likely to be genetically influenced, with a high degree of heritability (nearly 60%) for the trait. Evidence also indicates that men tend to score higher than women in sensation seeking, which is likely related to the finding that sensation seeking is positively correlated with testosterone levels. In addition, sensation seeking appears to peak during late adolescence and then decrease with age.
Sensation seeking has been found to be related to a wide range of overt social behaviors, some of which are likely caused by the tendency for sensation seekers to perceive less risk in a given situation than do low sensation seekers. For example, sensation seekers more frequently engage in adventure sports (e.g., scuba diving); are more likely to work in dangerous occupations (e.g., firefighter); and have a preference for rock music, entertainment that portrays humor, and “warm” paintings with red, orange, and yellow colors over “cold” paintings with green and blue colors. Sensation seeking has been suggested as a disease-prone personality because many of the behaviors associated with sensation seeking are potentially harmful to health whereas others concern social problems. For example, sensation seeking has been found predictive of reckless driving, sexual activity, adolescent delinquency, aggression, hostility, anger, personality disorders, criminal behavior, alcohol abuse, and illicit drug use. Not all studies, however, have found sensation seeking to be a strong predictor of such behaviors, likely because research also indicates that the environment and experiences play important roles in the expression of behaviors such as aggression.
- Stelmack, R. M. (Ed.). (2004). On the psychobiology of personality: Essays in honor of Marvin Zuckerman. San Diego, CA: Elsevier.
- Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. New York: Cambridge University Press.