Sensation Seeking Research Paper

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Sensation seeking is a personality trait defined as the tendency to seek varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take risks for the sake of such experience (Zuckerman 1979,

1994). The standard measure of the trait is the Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS). In the most widely used version (form V) it consists of four subscales: (a) Thrill and Adventure Seeking (through risky and unusual sports or other activities); (b) Experience Seeking (through the mind and senses, travel, and an unconventional lifestyle); (c) Disinhibition (through social and sexual stimulation, lively parties, and social drinking); (d) Boredom Susceptibility (aversion to lack of change and variety in experience and people). Form V uses a total score based on the sum of the four subscales. More recently a single scale called ‘Impulsive Sensation Seeking’ has been developed which is a combination of items measuring the tendency to act impulsively without planning ahead, and adaptations of items from the SSS which assess the general need for excitement without mention of specific interest or activities (Zuckerman 1993).

Similar constructs and measures have been developed by other researchers including: change seeking, stimulus variation seeking, excitement seeking, arousal seeking, novelty seeking and venturesomeness. Most of these scales correlate very highly with the SSS and usually have the same kind of behavioral correlates.

Novelty seeking, a construct and scale devised by Cloninger (1987), not only correlates highly with Impulsive Sensation Seeking, but is based on a similar kind of biobehavioral model. Individuals high on novelty seeking are described as impulsive, exploratory, fickle, and excitable. They are easily attracted to new interests and activities, but are easily distracted and bored. Those who are low on this trait are described as reflective, rigid, loyal, stoic, frugal, orderly, and persistent. They are reluctant to initiate new activities and are preocccupied with details, and think very carefully and long before making decisions.

1. Theoretical And Research Origins Of The Construct

The first version of the SSS was an attempt to provide an operational measure of the construct ‘optimal levels of stimulation and arousal’ (the level at which one feels and functions best). The author was conducting experiments on sensory deprivation (SD) in which participants volunteered to spend some length of time (from 1 to 24 hours in the author’s experiments and up to two weeks in those of other investigators) in a dark soundproof room. It was theorized that persons with high optimal levels of stimulation would be most deprived by the absence of stimulation. Experiments show that the high sensation seeker became more restless over the course of an eight-hour experiment but did not experience more anxiety than the low sensation seekers (defined by the first version of the SSS). The construct changed as research using the SSS was extended to the broader domain of life experience.

2. Behavioral Expressions

Contrary to what we expected, the volunteers for the SD experiments were more commonly high sensations seekers than lows. This was because they had heard that people had weird experiences in SD, like hallucinations. High sensation seekers volunteered for any kind of unusual experiments, like hypnosis or drug studies. They did not volunteer for more ordinary experiments. The concept of sensation seeking centered more around the need for novel stimulation or inner experiences rather than stimulation per se. Surveys of drug use and preferences showed that high sensation seekers tended to be polydrug users of both stimulant and depressant drugs whereas lows did not use any drugs (Segal et al. 1980). It was the novel experience of drugs, not their effect on arousal, that attracted high sensation seekers. Of course hallucinatory drugs had a particular attraction for those who scored high on this trait. They were not deterred by the legal, social, or physical risks entailed in drug use. Sensation seeking in preadolescents predicts their later alcohol and drug use and abuse.

Similarly sensation seekers proved to be attracted to risky sports that provided intense or novel sensations and experiences, like mountain climbing, parachuting, scuba diving, and car racing. They were not found in ordinary field sports or among compulsive exercisers. Outside of sports the high sensation seekers were found to drive their cars faster and more recklessly than lower sensation seekers.

High sensation seekers are attracted to exciting vocations such as firefighting, emergency room work, flying, air-traffic control, and dangerous military assignments. When they are stuck in monotonous desk jobs they report more job dissatisfaction than low sensation seekers.

In interpersonal relationships high sensation seekers tend to value the fun and games aspects rather than intimacy and commitment (Richardson et al. 1988). They tend to have more premarital sexual experience with more partners and engage in ‘risky sex.’ There is a high degree of assortative mating based on sensation seeking, i.e., highs tend to marry highs and lows tend to marry lows. Couples coming for marital therapy tend to have discrepant scores on the trait. Divorced persons are higher on the trait than monogamously marrieds.

Not all expressions of sensation seeking are risky. High sensation seekers like designs and works of art that are complex and emotionally evocative (expressionist). They like explicit sex and horror films and intense rock music. When watching television they tend to frequently switch channels (‘channel surfing’). High sensation seekers enjoy sexual and nonsense types of humor (Ruch 1988). Low sensation seekers prefer realistic pastoral art pictures, media forms like situation comedies, and quiet background music.

3. Psychopathology

Sensation seeking is an essentially normal trait and most of those who are very high or low on the trait are free from psychopathology. However, persons with certain kinds of disorders involving a lack of impulse control tend to be high sensation seekers. Sensation seeking is a primary motive for those with antisocial personality disorder; their antisocial behavior involves great risks where the only motive is sometimes the increase of excitement. Other disorders with a high number of sensation seekers include those with conduct disorders, borderline personality disorders, alcohol and drug abusers, and bipolar (manic-depressive) disorders. It has been discovered that there are genetic and biological trait links between many of these disorders and sensation seeking. For instance, as yet unaffected children of bipolars tend to be high sensation seekers as well as showing similar differences on an enzyme to be discussed.

4. Genetics

Studies of twins raised in intact families show a relatively high degree of heritability (60 percent), compared to other personality traits that are typically in the range 30–50 percent. Analyses show no effects for the shared family environment; the environment that is important is that outside of the family which affects each twin differently. A study of twins separated shortly after birth and adopted into different families confirms these results (Hur and Bouchard 1997).

A specific gene has been found to be related to novelty seeking (Ebstein et al. 1996). The gene produces one class of receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine. One of the two major forms of the gene is found more often in high sensation seekers. This form of the gene has also been found in high percentages of heroin abusers, pathological gamblers, and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The neurotransmitter dopamine as well as the other two monoamines in the brain, norepinephrine and serotonin, are theorized to underlie the three behavioral mechanisms involved in sensation seeking: strong approach, and weak arousal and inhibition.

5. Biochemistry

Males who are high in sensation seeking trait have high levels of the hormone testosterone compared to average levels in lower sensation seekers (Daitzman and Zuckerman 1980). This finding is consistent with the difference between men and women in the trait and the finding that sensation seeking peaks in the late teens and declines with age in both sexes.

The enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) type B is lower in high sensation seekers than in those who score low on the trait. This is also consistent with age and gender differences since women are higher than men on MAO at all ages and MAO rises in the brain and blood platelets with age. Type B MAO is a regulator of the monoamines, particularly dopamine, and low levels imply a lack of regulation perhaps related to the impulsivity characteristic of many high sensation seekers. Low levels of MAO are also found in disorders characterized by poor behavioral control: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, pathological gambling disorder, and mania (bipolar disorder). MAO is part of the genetic predisposition for these disorders as shown by the finding that the enzyme is low in as yet nonaffected children of alcoholics and those with bipolar disorder. Evidence of behavioral differences in newborn infants related to MAO levels also show the early effects on temperament. MAO differences are also related to behavioral traits in monkeys analogous to those of high and low sensation seeking humans.

6. Psychophysiology

Differences in the psychophysiological responses of the brain and autonomic nervous system as a function of stimulus intensity and novelty have been found and generally replicated (Zuckerman 1990). The heart rate response reflecting orienting to moderately intense and novel stimuli is stronger in high sensation seekers than in lows, perhaps reflecting their interest in novel stimuli (experience seeking) and disinterest in repeated stimuli (boredom suceptibility).

The cortical evoked potential (EP) reflects the magnitude of the brain cortex response to stimuli. Augmenting–reducing is a measure of the relationship between amplitude of the EP as a function of the intensity of stimuli. A high positive slope (augmenting) is characteristic of high sensation seekers (primarily those of the disinhibition type) and very low slopes, sometimes reflecting a reduction of response at the highest stimulus intensities (reducing), is found primarily in low sensation seekers. These EP augmenting–reducing differences have been related to differences in behavioral control in individual cats and strains of rats analogous to sensation seeking behavior in humans (Siegel and Driscoll 1996).

7. Evolution

Comparative studies of humans and other species using the same biological markers suggest that the trait of impulsive sensation seeking has evolved in the mammalian line (Zuckerman 1984). Exploration and foraging is risky but adaptive in species that must move frequently to avoid exhaustion of the resources in an area. The balance between sensation seeking and fear determines exploration of the novel environment. Our own hominid species that came out of Africa and settled the entire earth in about 100,000 years had to have at least a moderate degree of sensation seeking. The hunting of large animals by men, warfare, and the seeking of mates outside of the group all involved risks which may have been overcome by the sensation seeking pleasure in such activity. Individual differences in the trait are seen in human infants before the major effects of socialization are seen. This suggests that impulsive sensation seeking is a basic trait related to individual differences in the approach, arousal, and inhibition behavioral mechanisms in humans and other species.

8. Future Directions

One gene (DRD4) has been associated with sensation seeking but it only accounts for 10 percent of the genetic variance. The search for other major genes will continue and the understanding of what these genes do in the nervous system will fill in the large biological gap between genes and sensation-seeking behavior. Longitudinal studies that begin with genetic markers like the DRD4, biological markers like MAO, and behavioral markers like reactions to novelty, will be used to find out how specific environmental factors interact with dispositions to determine the expressions of sensation seeking, for instance why one sensation seeker becomes a criminal and another a firefighter who does skydiving on weekends..


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