Sensation Seeking

Sensation seeking is another dimension of personality postulated to have a physiological basis. Sensation seeking is the tendency to seek out thrilling and exciting activities, to take risks, and to avoid boredom. Research on the need for sensory input grew out of studies on sensory deprivation. Let's begin, then, with a description of sensory deprivation research.

Imagine volunteering for a study in which you are put into a small chamber , where there is no light, no sound, and only minimal tactile sensations. Imagine further that you agree to do this for 12 hours straight. What would this experience be like? Research suggests that at first you would fee relaxed, then bored, then anxious as you started to hallucinate and have delusions. Early research by Hebb (1955) showed that, in such a situation, college students chose to listen over and over to a taped lecture intended to convince 6-year -olds about the dangers of alcohol. Other participants in these early sensory deprivation experiments who were offered a recording of an old stock market report opted to listen to it over and over again, apparently to avoid the unpleasant consequences of sensory deprivation. Persons in sensory deprived environments appear motivated to acquire any sensory input, even if ordinarily such input would be perceived as boring.

Hebb's Theory of Optimal Level of Arousal

Hebb developed the theory of optimal level of ar ousal, which was used by Eysenck in his theory of extraversion. Hebb's theory states that people are motivated to reach an optimal level of arousal. If they are underaroused, relative to this level, an increase in arousal is rewarding; conversely , if they are overaroused, a decrease in arousal is rewarding. For its time, Hebb' s theory was controversial, since most researchers thought that tension reduction was the goal of all motives, yet Hebb was saying that we are motivated to seek out tension and stimulation. How else can we explain the fact that people like to work on puzzles, enjoy mild frustration, and occasionally take risks or do something to arouse mild fears, such as going on a roller coaster ride. Hebb's belief that people need stimulation and sensory input is consistent with the results of sensory deprivation research. The nervous system appears to need at least some sensory input.

Zuckerman's Research

Early on in sensory deprivation research, Zuckerman and Haber (1965) noted that some people were not as distressed as others by the sensory deprivation experience. In these early experiments, some people found sensory deprivation extremely unpleasant. These participants requested lots of sensory material (tapes, reading material) during the experiment and quit the experiment relatively early . Zuckerman believed that such persons had a particularly high need for sensation because they were the least tolerant of deprivation. He called them sensation seekers because they appeared to seek out stimulation, not just in the sensory deprivation experiment but in their everyday lives as well.

Zuckerman developed a questionnaire designed to measure the extent to which a person needs novel or exciting experiences and enjoys the thrills and excitement

The theory of sensation seeking was proposed to explain why some people routinely seek out thrilling experiences, even though such experiences may come with certain risks.

Table 7.2 Items from the Sensation-Seeking Scale

There are several aspects of sensation seeking that are reflected in the items on this scale.

Thrill and adventure seeking—reflected in items that ask about desire for outdoor sports or activities involving elements of risk, such as flying, scuba diving, parachute jumping, motorcycle riding, and mountain climbing—for example, "I sometimes like to do things that are a little frightening" (high) versus "A sensible person avoids activities that are dangerous" (low).

Experience seeking—reflected in items that refer to the seeking of new sensory or mental experiences through unconventional or nonconforming lifestyle choices—for example, "I like to have new and exciting experiences and sensations even if they are frightening, unconventional, or illegal" (high) versus "I am not interested in experience for its own sake" (low).

Disinhibition—reflected in items indicating a preference for getting "out of control" or an interest in wild parties, gambling, and sexual variety—for example, "Almost everything enjoyable is illegal or immoral" (high) versus "The most enjoyable things are perfectly legal and moral" (low).

Boredom susceptibility—reflected in items that refer to a dislike for repetition, routine work, monotony, predictable and dull people, and a restlessness when things become unchanging—for example, "I get bored seeing the same old faces" (high) versus "I like the comfortable familiarity of everyday friends" (low).

All of the items on the Sensation-Seeking Scale, as well as scoring instructions, can be found in Zuckerman (1978).

associated with them. He called the questionnaire the Sensation-Seeking Scale, and items from it appear in T able 7.2. Zuckerman hypothesized that some people (high sensation seekers) require a lot of stimulation to reach their optimal level of arousal. Moreover, when deprived of stimulation and sensory input (as in a sensory deprivation chamber), such persons find that experience particularly unpleasant

As it turned out, Zuckerman' s questionnaire about preferences for stimulation in everyday life predicted how well people tolerated the sensory deprivation sessions. High sensation seekers found sensory deprivation to be particularly unpleasant, whereas low sensation seekers were able to tolerate it for longer periods of time. In the early 1960s, Zuckerman left the sensory deprivation laboratory and began to study the other unique characteristics associated with the personality dimension of sensation seeking. Notice that this theoretical explanation of sensation seeking is very similar to that Eysenck offered for extraversion. In fact, there is a moderately strong positive correlation between extraversion and sensation seeking.

In the 30-plus years that Zuckerman and his colleagues and others have been doing research on sensation seeking, many interesting findings have eme ged. A number of these findings are consistent with the idea that high sensation seekers have need for high levels of stimulation in their daily lives (reviewed in Zuckerman, 1978). Police officers who volunteer for riot duty have higher sensation-seeking scores o Zuckerman's scale than of ficers who do not volunteer for riot dut . Skydivers score higher on sensation-seeking measures than nonskydivers. Among college students who volunteered to be in psychology experiments, the students with high sensation-seeking scores volunteered to participate in the more unusual studies (studies on ESP , hypnosis, or drugs) than in the typical studies (on learning, sleep, or social interaction). In studies of gambling behavior , the participants with high sensation-seeking scores tended to make riskier bets. High sensation seekers also report having a lar ger

A Closer Look

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