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date: 21 July 2017

Sensation Seeking

Summary and Keywords

Sensation seeking is a biologically based personality trait that is characterized by the need to seek a variety of sensations and experiences and the willingness to take risks to achieve them. There is a large volume of literature on sensation seeking that delineates important conceptual and operational distinctions, including several prominent measures of sensation seeking. Issues related to research design and data analysis include whether researchers treat sensation seeking as an independent or dependent variable, use total scale versus subscale scores in analyses, treat scores as continuous or grouped variables, and consider demographic variables in their analyses. Research may relate sensation seeking to a range of behaviors, from maladaptive behaviors such as substance use and risky sex to more neutral or even adaptive behaviors such as preferences for music and art or preferences for certain careers. Research may establish a genetic basis for sensation seeking and/or associate sensation seeking with neurological and physiological responsiveness. Research also explores the associations of sensation seeking to perceptions of risk, as well as the sex and age of individuals and groups in an international context.

Keywords: sensation seeking, risk behaviors, adolescents, college students, young adults, individual differences, biology, genetics

Introduction

Marvin Zuckerman, the researcher who developed the construct of the individual indifference personality train known as sensation seeking beginning in the 1960s, offered the first formal definition in 1979, writing that “Sensation seeking is a trait 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 experiences” (Zuckerman, 1979, p. 10). In an updated definition 15 years later, he elaborated and refined the definition to specify that “Sensation seeking is a trait defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience” (Zuckerman, 1994, p. 27; emphasis original). Although some amount of risk taking is involved in seeking sensation, high sensation seekers (HSS) do not take risks just for the sake of doing so; rather, they take risks to achieve sensation. Low sensation seekers (LSS), having no such need, tend to avoid risks.

There are several conceptual and operational aspects to keep in mind when considering sensation seeking. Two foundational concerns are the extent to which the need for sensation is underwritten by a need for novelty, complexity, and/or intensity, and the extent to which impulsivity is conceptually distinct from sensation seeking yet plays a role in the expression of sensation seeking behavior. Scales that researchers have developed to measure sensation seeking differ according to which of these concerns are emphasized. Another important issue is the distinction between the overall construct and its four dimensions: thrill and adventure seeking (TAS), experience seeking (ES), disinhibition (Dis), and boredom susceptibility (BS). Another question is the extent to which the overall construct versus its four dimensions are more or less related to risky behaviors. Additional concerns are which of several measures to use and whether to treat sensation seeking data as dichotomous or continuous.

The study of sensation seeking has generated a rich, multifaceted literature. Researchers have studied the relationship between sensation seeking and a multitude of different behaviors ranging from substance use and risky sex to preferences for art and music, as well as choice of occupation. Unlike many other individual differences of interest to health and risk messaging researchers, such as self-efficacy, consideration of future consequences, and perceptions of severity and susceptibility, sensation seeking is a biologically based personality trait. It is associated with certain hormones (e.g., testosterone) and neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine regulation via the enzyme monoamine oxidase B; see Zuckerman, 2005, for a comprehensive review). Researchers have investigated its genetic basis and associations with neurological and physiological responses. They also have been interested in associations with perceptions of risk and differences across age and sex. Sensation seeking is of international interest, with studies of a wide variety of attitudes and behaviors being conducted with samples of participants from numerous countries.

Conceptualization and Operationalization

Sensation seeking is composed of four dimensions: thrill and adventure seeking (TAS), experience seeking (ES), disinhibition (Dis), and boredom susceptibility (BS). TAS may be the most prototypical dimension, related to high-sensation-value activities such as sky diving, bungee jumping, white water rafting, and, as the name implies, any other thrilling and adventurous activity. ES relates to the desire to engage in a broad variety of experiences such as travel, art, and music. Dis is the dimension most closely associated with alcohol and other drug use and risky sexual behavior. BS is the tendency to become bored easily and, therefore, to have the desire to look for something new and different to do.

Measures of Sensation Seeking

The first measure of sensation seeking was developed in 1964 (Zuckerman, Kolin, Price, & Zoob, 1964). From there, the scale went through several iterations until it reached its current form, SSS-V (Zuckerman, Eysenck, & Eysenck, 1978; Zuckerman [1984] developed a sixth version of the scale, but it never gained traction). SSS-V consists of 40 forced-choice items, 10 for each dimension. It is presented as an “interest or preference” test or questionnaire; respondents are asked to read through sets of paired items, choosing the one that most closely matches their interests or preferences. Respondents receive one point for each high-sensation-value option they endorse, and scores are summed to arrive at an overall total. Example items for each dimension are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Sample Items from SSS-V.

Dimension

Paired Items

TAS

  1. A. I often wish I could be a mountain climber.

  2. B. I can’t understand people who risk their necks climbing mountains.

ES

  1. A. I dislike all body odors.

  2. B. I like some of the earthy body smells.

Dis

  1. A. I am not interested in experience for its own sake.

  2. B. I like to have new and exciting experiences and sensations even if they are little frightening, unconventional, or illegal.

BS

  1. A. I get bored seeing the same old faces.

  2. B. I like the comfortable familiarity of everyday friends.

Note. High sensation value items are italicized.

Over the years, mostly in response to perceived deficiencies in the SSS-V, researchers have developed numerous variations of the sensation seeking scale. One of the most well-known scales is the Brief Sensation Seeking Scale (BSSS) developed by Hoyle, Stephenson, Palmgreen, Lorch, and Donohew (2002). Hoyle et al. developed this scale for several reasons: (a) to reduce the amount of time taken to administer the scale, (b) to be more appropriate for use with an adolescent population, (c) to remove items directly related to the problem behaviors being predicted, and (d) to update the language to remove dated colloquialisms. The resulting scale consists of eight items, two items per dimension, presented on a five-point Likert scale. Sample items include “I like to do frightening things” (TAS), “I would like to explore strange places” (ES), “I like new and exciting experiences, even if I have to break the rules” (Dis), and “I prefer friends who are exciting and unpredictable” (BS; note that these four items comprise the BSSS-4, discussed below). Across two studies involving more than 7,000 middle- and high-school students, these researchers found consistent support for the scale’s reliability and validity. Coefficient α‎ for Study 1 was 0.76 and for Study 2 was 0.74. Study 1 analyses explored reliability across sex and ethnicity, finding scores ranging from .68 for African American males to .85 for “Other” females (although the researchers did note the 0.85 α‎ may be suspect because only 19 participants comprised the “Other” female category). Study 2 analyses investigated correlations between BSSS scores and attitudes, intentions, and use of illicit substances. Results showed negative correlations between BSSS scores and negative attitudes toward substance use and positive correlations between BSSS scores and intentions to use and substance use, as well as showing expected relationships between the BSSS and scores on risk factors (e.g., deviance, perceived lack of opportunity) and protective factors (e.g., self-acceptance, quality of home life). Miller (2016) notes that scores on the eight-item BSSS are significantly correlated with the use of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, inhalants, hallucinogens, and cocaine across populations varying in sex, age, and ethnic background. He also notes that the scale is an excellent predictor of marijuana initiation, so message design researchers can use it to target vulnerable populations for prevention campaigns.

Stephenson, Hoyle, Palmgreen, and Slater (2003) shortened the BSSS even further, reducing it to a four-item scale, one item per dimension. They also tested a two-item scale developed by Slater (2003) that focused on the risk-taking aspects of sensation seeking. The four-item scale used a 5-point Likert response format anchored by strongly disagree and strongly agree, whereas the two-item scale used a 5-point Likert-type response format anchored by not at all and fairly often. Using data from more than 5,000 adolescents in grades 7–11, the researchers determined that the two new scales performed as well as the eight-item BSSS and the impulsive sensation seeking subscale of the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (a questionnaire designed as a more comprehensive measure of personality; Zuckerman, Kuhlman, Joireman, Teta, & Kraft, 1993) in regard to correlations with substance use and risk and protective factors.

Arnett (1994) developed the Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking (AISS) to address several concerns he had about the SSS-V. First, he was concerned about the forced-choice format of the questions, which could force respondents to choose between two responses that did not apply to them. Second, he was concerned that some of the items, especially those in the TAS dimension, would not be very applicable to older adults. Third, he was concerned that some of the items involved antisocial or illegal behavior, including behavior that sensation seeking was supposed to predict, thus presenting a confound. Finally, he was concerned that the SSS-V privileged complexity over intensity, the latter of which he considered to be central to the sensation seeking construct. His resulting 20-item scale consisted of a ten-item novelty subscale and a ten-item intensity subscale. Items were on a four-point scale ranging from describes me very well to does not describe me at all. Items were designed to assess sensation in relation to the senses (e.g., taste, smell, sight), as well as overall experiences of novelty or intensity, that could appeal to a wide range of ages and without involving illegal or antisocial behavior. Results from two studies, both involving 16- to 18-year-olds (n1 = 116 and n2 = 139) and one involving a small sample of adults (n = 38), found that the AISS was more strongly related to risky behavior (e.g., reckless driving, risky sexual behavior, substance use, theft) than the SSS-V; further, AISS scores showed similar relationships to sex and age as the SSS-V, with males scoring higher than females and younger respondents scoring higher than older respondents.

Researchers also have worked to develop measures of sensation seeking in children. Kafry (1982) developed a measure based on the SSS-V by simplifying the language but attempting to keep the content of the items the same. Sixty-nine children in kindergarten, second grade, and fourth grade completed the scale, along with measures that assessed various preferences (e.g., puzzle complexity, physically risky activities). Results showed no differences in scores on the modified scale by age or sex, but the average score was lower than scores reported in studies using the SSS-V with older participants (e.g., college students). Scores on sensation seeking were positively correlated with preferences for puzzle complexity, picture complexity, preference for physically risky activities, and involvement in negative behaviors (e.g., playing with matches, hitting a peer). Russo and colleagues (1991, 1993) also developed a scale for children based on the SSS-V, the SSS-C, but in addition to modifying the language to make it simpler, they deleted 12 items due to their “adult nature” (p. 401). The researchers tested the first draft of their scale with 126 elementary school children and a clinical sample of 177 7- to 12-year-old boys (Russo et al., 1991). A factor analysis using both samples revealed a two-factor solution reflecting the BS and TAS subscales of the SSS-V. Results showed good test–retest reliability and higher average scores for boys than girls in the elementary school sample; in the clinical sample, boys with conduct disorder scored higher on the BS subscale and boys with ADHD scored lower on the BS subscale than boys without those diagnoses. Subsequent to that study, Russo et al. (1993) tested a revised version of the SSS-C on a sample of 660 9- to 15-year-old elementary and middle-school students and a clinical sample of 168 9- to 14-year-old boys. Factor analysis using both samples revealed a three-factor solution: thrill and adventure seeking, drug and alcohol attitudes, and social disinhibition. Results showed moderate test–retest reliability and higher average scores for boys than girls in the elementary and middle-school sample; boys in the clinical sample with conduct disorder and boys from the school sample scored higher on the overall scale and the drug and alcohol attitudes and social disinhibition subscales than boys in the clinical sample without conduct disorder.

In addition to developing the original measure of sensation seeking, Zuckerman, along with several colleagues, developed more comprehensive measures of personality. The Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (ZKPQ; Zuckerman et al., 1993) consists of five factors: activity (Act), aggression-hostility (Agg-Host), impulsive sensation seeking (ImpSS), neuroticism-anxiety (N-Anx), and sociability (Sy). The updated Zuckerman-Kuhlman-Aluja Personality Questionnaire (ZKA-PQ; Aluja, Kuhlman, & Zuckerman, 2010) also consists of five factors: aggressiveness (AG), activity (AC), extraversion (EX), neuroticism (NE), and sensation seeking (SS). Researchers interested in sensation seeking will use the appropriate items from these five-factor scales to assess the sensation seeking construct: ImpSS from the ZKPQ and SS from the ZKA-PQ. Aluja et al. (2010) emphasized the benefits of the SS subscale from the ZKA-PQ, noting that it is “virtually identical” to the original scale but does not contain items related to substance use or sexual activity, which would be confounded with the very behavior that researchers may want to predict.

Although the eight- and four-item BSSS and the SS subscale of the ZKA-PQ offer valid and reliable measures of the sensation seeking construct, researchers who are interested in studying risky sexual behavior have developed a measure specific to that: the Sexual Sensation Seeking Scale (SSSS; Kalichman et al., 1994). Kalichman et al. (1994) developed the SSSS not only to be specific to sexual behavior but also to update the SSS-V language and format, to make the scale appropriate for people of any sexual orientation, and to remove items related to substance use because of its correlation with risky sexual behaviors. The resulting scale consisted of ten items on a 4-point scale ranging from not at all like me to very much like me. Sample items include “I am interested in trying out new sexual experiences” and “I have said things that were not exactly true to get a person to have sex with me.” Using data collected from 106 homosexual men, the researchers found evidence for the SSSS’s reliability and convergent, divergent, and discriminant validity; gathering follow-up data from 36 of their participants two weeks later, the researchers found evidence of test–retest reliability. After making minor modifications to the scale to improve item clarity, Kalichman and Rompa (1995) did further testing of the 11-item revised SSSS with larger and more diverse samples. In a study of 296 homosexual men and a subsequent study of 158 low-income, inner-city men and women, the researchers found further evidence for the SSSS’s reliability and validity.

Ranging from the now classic SSS-V to scales targeting specific aspects of behavior, multiple versions of sensation seeking scales are available to researchers interested in this construct. Table 2 provides a description of some of the more prevalent measures reviewed above.

Table 2. Prevalent Sensation Seeking Scales.

Scale

N of Items

Response Format

Subscales

Source

SSS-V

40

Forced choice, two options

TAS, ES, Dis, BS

Zuckerman (1994)

BSSS

8

Five-point, strongly disagree to strongly agree

TAS, ES, Dis, BS

Hoyle et al. (2002)

AISS

20

Four-point, describes me very well to does not describe me at all

Novelty, Intensity

Arnett (1994)

ZKA-PQ

40

Four-point, disagree strongly to agree strongly

TAS, ES, Dis, BS/I

Aluja et al. (2010)

SSSS

11

Four-point, not at all like me to very much like me

None

Kalichman & Rompa (1995)

Notes: SSS-V = Sensation Seeking Scale Form V;

BSSS = Brief Sensation Seeking Scale;

AISS = Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking;

ZKA-PQ = Zuckerman-Kuhlman-Aluja Personality Questionnaire;

SSSS = Sexual Sensation Seeking Scale;

TAS = thrill and adventure seeking;

ES = experience seeking;

Dis = disinhibition;

BS = boredom susceptibility;

BS/I = boredom susceptibility/impulsivity.

(*) The full ZKA-PQ scale consists of 200 items measuring five factors, one of which is sensation seeking; the other subscales are aggressiveness, activity, extraversion, and neuroticism.

Approaches to Research Design and Data Analysis

There are four main issues regarding research design and data analysis in studies involving sensation seeking: (a) whether sensation seeking is treated as an independent variable or a dependent variable, (b) whether the total scale score is used or subscale scores are considered, (c) whether scores are treated as continuous variables or analyzed according to some split, and (d) whether demographic variables are taken into consideration. When sensation seeking is treated as an independent variable, researchers are attempting to determine whether it can predict attitudes, intentions, or behavior. When it is treated as a dependent variable, researchers compare scores on the sensation seeking scale between groups of people, attempting to determine if people expressing different attitudes, intentions, or behaviors score higher on sensation seeking than those not involved in such behaviors. Often, researchers use the overall scale score in their analyses, but sometimes they consider subscale scores to develop a finer grained understanding. Treating sensation seeking as a continuous variable or using a median split or some other grouping to operationally define “high” versus “low” (and sometimes “medium”) sensation seekers is an analytic decision that researchers must make. It may be conceptually clearer to think of high and low sensation seekers as distinct groups and take an analysis of variance approach to analysis, but there is no compelling theoretical rationale for doing so; in fact, a cursory glance at the recent literature suggests that most analyses take a regression approach, treating sensation seeking as a continuous variable. When researchers want to improve the likelihood of revealing differences between groups, though, they often will use participants with extreme scores on each end of the continuum (e.g., take the upper and lower quartiles). Finally, researchers often analyze data by respondent sex. The following studies provide examples of all of these considerations.

Byck, Swann, Schalet, Bolland, and Mustanski (2015) were interested in whether sensation seeking would predict increases in adolescent problem behaviors. Their sample included 592 13- to 18-year-old adolescents from “extremely impoverished neighborhoods in the Mobile, Alabama metropolitan statistical area” (p. 467), nearly all of whom were African American. Sensation seeking was measured at one point in time as part of a larger longitudinal study. The researchers used the SSS-V but reworded several items to be better tailored to their sample. Although Cronbach’s α‎ for the total scale was acceptable (.76), α‎s for the subscales were all below par: .29 for ES, .51 for BS, .64 for Dis, and .65 for TAS. Therefore, the researchers conducted factor analyses and cluster-based analyses to develop more acceptable subscales: Pleasure Seeking (PS; 12 items, α‎ = .75), Danger/Novelty Seeking (D/NS; 10 items, α‎ = .63), and Thrill Seeking (TS; 8 items, α‎ = .70). These subscales were treated as continuous-level variables in analyses. Problem behaviors were measured annually over seven years and were assessed through composite variables measuring substance use (cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine), conduct problems (associated with gang members, suspended or expelled from school, arrested, got in a physical fight, and carried a weapon), and sexual risk taking (number of sexual partners and condom use). Results showed that for males, PS predicted conduct problems and substance use at baseline; for females, both PS and D/NS predicted conduct problems at baseline and growth in sexual risk taking and substance use. TS was not predictive of any problem behaviors at baseline or growth in any problem behaviors for either males or females.

Miller and Quick (2010) were interested in how both sensation seeking and psychological reactance might predict substance use and sexual behavior. Their sample included 659 undergraduates from two large universities, one in the Midwest and one in the Southwest. The researchers used the BSSS to measure sensation seeking (α‎ = .79); they used the overall score and treated it as a continuous-level variable in analyses. Results showed that when both sensation seeking and psychological reactance were included in the model, sensation seeking predicted alcohol and marijuana use but not tobacco use or risky sexual behavior; when psychological reactance was excluded from the model, sensation seeking did predict tobacco use and risky sexual behavior. The researchers found no interaction effects between sensation seeking and psychological reactance, and they found no differences between males and females in terms of sensation seeking’s relationship to substance use or risky sex.

Parent and Newman (1999) investigated whether differences in sensation seeking were related to alcohol use and risk taking among college women. From a pool of 103 undergraduates at a southeastern university, they selected two samples of 10 women who had extreme high (upper quartile) or low (lower quartile) scores on the SSS-V (α‎ = .77). Participants also completed measures of drinking habits, positive and negative affect, self-efficacy, and risk-taking attitudes. In a laboratory setting, participants rated the safety of three driving scenarios while sober and then after having drunk enough alcohol to reach a blood alcohol level of .08 to .10; they also completed the risk-taking attitude measure while intoxicated. Results showed that sensation seeking was not related to affect or self-efficacy; however, HSS reported drinking alcohol more frequently and in greater quantities than LSS. HSS also had more positive attitudes toward risk taking than LSS, both while sober and while intoxicated. There was an interaction effect between sensation seeking and level of sobriety for the driving scenarios, with LSS actually taking greater safety risks in the driving scenarios than HSS.

In a study that considered sensation seeking as a dependent variable, Fortune and Goodie (2010) were interested in comparing total scores on the SSS-V and scores on its subscales between pathological gamblers (PGs) and nonpathological gamblers (NPGs). They gathered data from two samples of undergraduate students at a large university in the southeastern United States (n1 = 81; n2 = 295). Results from the first sample showed no significant differences in total sensation seeking scores between PGs and NPGs and no significant differences for any of the subscales; the mean differences for Dis and BS were substantial, though, with higher scores among PGs. Results from the second, larger sample showed that PGs scored significantly higher on the total score and scores for Dis, BS, and ES than NPGs, although the differences for Dis and ES did not remain significant after the researchers adjusted significance levels for multiple comparisons (cf. O’Keefe, 2003).

Another example of a study in which sensation seeking was treated as a dependent variable is one by Perry, Accordino, and Hewes (2007). These researchers investigated predictors of sexual sensation seeking in a sample of 307 college students enrolled in universities in the northeastern United States. The researchers used the SSSS (α‎ = .85) and assessed students’ age, class (upper/lower), average weekly amount of time spent online, age at which they were exposed to pornography online, whether they owned a computer, and participation in several online activities (e.g., shopping, banking). Results showed that SSSS was predicted by the age at which students had first been exposed to online pornography, using the Internet to access adult entertainment websites, and upper class student status; although women scored lower on the scale than men, the difference did not reach statistical significance.

Association of Sensation Seeking with Behavior

On the basis of the research reviewed up to this point, the reader might conclude that researchers are interested solely in sensation seeking’s relationship with dangerous, undesirable, or even antisocial behaviors. That actually is not the case. Although the majority of the literature on sensation seeking does address its relationship to negative behaviors, there is research that considers sensation seeking’s relationship with behaviors that might be categorized as neutral or even positive. Indeed, in a recent review, Maples-Keller, Berke, Few, and Miller (2016) reviewed empirical correlates of sensation seeking, categorizing them into “dark, bright, and neutral hues” (p. 137). The following sections provide examples of research investigating the relationship of sensation seeking to some of these behaviors, following Maples-Keller et al.’s categorization of maladaptive, neutral, and adaptive behaviors. Attention is focused on the behavior and its relationship to sensation seeking, not details of research design, and the studies reviewed are meant to serve only as examples, not a comprehensive review.

Maladaptive Behaviors

Substance Use

Sensation seeking is clearly and consistently related to substance use, regardless of the substance. In a study of 3,106 Connecticut high-school students, Leeman et al. (2014) found that sensation seeking was related to cigarette smoking, marijuana use, and alcohol use. In a study of 77 adolescents from a psychiatric clinic and 131 adolescents from general pediatric clinics in Kentucky, Martin et al. (2002) found that sensation seeking was related to nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana use in males and nicotine and alcohol use in females. In a longitudinal study of 764 American Indian high-school students from the western United States, Spillane et al. (2012) found that sensation seeking predicted initiation of daily cigarette smoking. In a study of 257 18- to 25-year-old young adults living on the East Coast of the United States, Shin, Chung, and Jeon (2013) found that sensation seeking was positively associated with illicit substance use in the past year and with polysubstance use. In a study of 4,348 18- to 25-year-old students from six colleges in the southeastern United States, Enofe, Berg, and Nehl (2014) found that users of alternative tobacco products (chewing tobacco, snuff, dip, cigars, little cigars, cigarillos, water pipe tobacco [hookah], snus, electronic cigars) had higher sensation seeking scores than nonusers of these products.

These individual study results are supported by meta-analyses. VanderVeen, Hershberger, and Cyders (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of 38 studies (with 41 independent samples) to investigate the relationship between dimensions of impulsivity (of which sensation seeking is one) and marijuana use in adolescents. They found that sensation seeking was significantly associated with marijuana use and with the negative consequences of marijuana use; gender was not a moderator of these relationships. Hittner and Swickert (2006) conducted a meta-analysis of 61 studies that investigated the relationship between sensation seeking and alcohol use. They found that total sensation seeking and all subscale scores were positively associated with alcohol use.

Risky Sex

Risky sexual behaviors also have been shown to be clearly and consistently related to sensation seeking. In a study of 2,386 18- to 26-year-old young adults in two Midwestern cities in the United States, Charnigo et al. (2013) found that sensation seeking was positively associated with the number of sex partners in the past year and lifetime, having sex while using alcohol or drugs, having sex with a partner who was using alcohol or drugs, having sex with a partner who had had a sexually transmitted disease (STD), having sex with a non-monogamous partner, and having sex with a partner who has sex with both men and women. In a longitudinal study of 715 15- to 21-year-old African American females who were visiting clinics in Georgia that treated sexually transmitted infections, Voisin, Tan, and DiClemente (2013) found that sexual sensation seeking was positively related to number of lifetime sex partners and negatively related to condom use over two weeks and two months; they also found that sexual sensation seeking was negatively related to reduced frequency of communicating with partners about sex, reduced efficacy to refuse sex, and increased fear of negotiating condom use. In a study of 511 16- to 51-year-old participants recruited from various online forums and five universities in Western Canada, Champion and Pederson (2015) explored the relationship between sensation seeking and sexting. They found that people who had engaged in sexting of any kind (from “sexy word-based messages” to sending fully nude photos or videos) scored significantly higher on sensation seeking than people who had never engaged in sexting.

These individual study results are supported by a meta-analysis by Hoyle, Fejfar, and Miller (2000). These researchers conducted a comprehensive search of the literature on normal personality and sexual risk taking, defined as behaviors that could lead to HIV or other STDs or unintended pregnancies. They identified 53 studies, 35 of which included sensation seeking. Results showed that sensation seeking was positively correlated with all three categories of high-risk sexual behaviors: unprotected sex, multiple partners, and high-risk sexual encounters. Moderation analyses revealed that sensation seeking was more strongly related to number of partners than lack of condom use; effects also were stronger for college students and high-risk populations.

Gambling

Problem gambling is another negative behavior whose relationship to sensation seeking has been investigated extensively, but unlike with substance use and risky sexual behavior, the relationship of gambling with sensation seeking is unclear. In their review chapter, Maples-Keller et al. (2016) observe that “high-stakes gambling appears to differ from other forms of sensation seeking behavior [because] level of risk appears to be the primary reinforcing factor,” whereas for other high-sensation-value activities, “level of risk is secondary to the rewarding sensations conferred by stimulating activities” (p. 145).

Two meta-analyses have investigated the relationship between problem or pathological gambling and sensation seeking. Dowling et al. (2017) conducted a meta-analysis of 15 longitudinal studies (reported across 23 published articles) that investigated several risk and protective factors related to problem gambling; two of the studies included sensation seeking. Results showed a small mean effect size between sensation seeking and problem gambling. Hammelstein (2004) conducted a meta-analysis of 21 studies that compared pathological gamblers with or without additional psychiatric diagnoses to normal comparison subjects or comparison subjects with some other psychiatric diagnosis. Overall, results suggested a negative relationship between sensation seeking and pathological gambling for gamblers without other psychiatric conditions but a positive relationship between sensation seeking and pathological gambling for gamblers with some other psychiatric condition. Hammelstein offered a detailed and incisive analyses of the various studies and concluded that the relationship between sensation seeking and pathological gambling is probably more complex than what the literature reveals and that understanding has been complicated by conceptual and operational issues regarding sensation seeking, impulsivity, and behavioral expression (see also Charnigo et al. [2013] and Steinberg et al. [2008] for a discussion of sensation seeking versus impulsivity).

Other Maladaptive Behaviors

Other maladaptive behaviors found to be related to sensation seeking (or its close variants) include aggressive behavior (Wilson & Scarpa, 2011), academic dishonesty (DeAndrea, Carpenter, Shulman, & Levine, 2009), risky driving behavior (Bradley & Wildman, 2002; Jonah, 1997), nonsuicidal self-injury (Knorr, Jenkins, & Connor, 2013), and suicidal and violent behavior in males (Vermeiren et al., 2003).

Neutral Behaviors

Preferences for Music and Art

Weisskirch and Murphy (2004) measured sensation seeking, Internet use, and music preference in a sample of 138 college students at a small California state university. In terms of music preferences, they found that sensation seeking was positively correlated with preference for heavy metal, punk, reggae, and ska. In terms of Internet use, participants who used the Internet to download sex-related materials or who tended to just “surf” the Internet scored higher in sensation seeking than participants who did not report engaging in these online behaviors. Furham and Walker (2001) had 121 participants rate preferences for various kinds of art; they measured sensation seeking with the little-used Form VI, which consists of only two subscales: Dis and TAS. The researchers found that scores on the Dis subscale were positively correlated with preferences for abstract and pop art and that scores on the TAS subscale were positively correlated with preferences for abstract, pop, and representational art.

Preferences for Media

In a study of preferences for television and movies, Greene and Krcmar (2005) surveyed 610 junior-high-school, high-school, and college students, measuring sensation seeking and their exposure to and liking of violent films, horror films, real crime television, and violent television. The researchers found that sensation seeking predicted both liking and viewing of violent films and horror films but was unrelated to real crime or violent television liking or viewing. Slater (2003) collected data from 3,127 eighth-grade students from 20 high schools across the United States. He created a composite index of exposure to violent media content, which consisted of frequency of watching action movies/videos, playing computer/video games in which a weapon was fired, and visiting Internet sites that either described violence or advocated for violence. In a regression analysis, Slater found that sensation seeking predicted exposure to violent media content; he also found that this relationship appeared to be partially mediated by an adolescent’s alienation from school and family.

Preferences for Risky Sports

In a study of 375 Australian 18- to 25-year-olds, Bradley and Wildman (2002) investigated preferences for “reckless” behavior, defined as participation in risky water sports, risky adventure sports, rollerblading/skateboarding, and motorbike riding. The researchers found that participation in such risky sporting activities was predicted by sensation seeking. Prochniak (2011) found evidence that differences in sensation seeking predict the likelihood of participating in skydiving. He measured sensation seeking in 53 Polish skydivers and 59 low-risk sports participants and found that skydivers scored significantly higher on sensation seeking than the other respondents. Dsilva, Harrington, Palmgreen, Donohew, and Lorch (2001) analyzed preference for participation in a broad range of leisure activities among 597 16- to 25-year-old participants. Factor analysis of the 55 activities revealed an eight-factor solution: outdoor activities (e.g., boating), aesthetic/intellectual (e.g., going to museums), competitive sports (e.g., basketball), action-adventure (e.g., rock climbing), conflict-combat (e.g., martial arts), artistic (e.g., sketching), audio/visual (e.g., playing video games), and high flying (e.g., parachuting). HSS had higher mean scores for participation than LSS across all factors; however, a discriminant analysis revealed that HSS could be discriminated from LSS on the basis of the action-adventure and conflict-combat factors.

Adaptive Behaviors

Sensation seeking has been linked to a variety of arguably adaptive behaviors, ranging from information processing and cognitive styles to volunteerism and leadership potential.

Career Preferences

In terms of career preferences, sensation seekers seem to be attracted to careers that offer different kinds of stimulation. For example, Musolino and Hershenson (1977) found that air traffic controllers scored higher on sensation seeking (overall score and all of the subscales) than civil servants and college students. Goma, Perez, and Torrubia (1988) found that firemen scored higher on sensation seeking (overall score, TAS, and ES) than a comparison group of students. More recently, Glicksohn and Naor-Ziv (2016) found that military pilots scored higher on TAS, ES, and Dis than population norms; pilots also scored higher on TAS and ES than a comparison group composed of VIP body guards, members of bomb disposal and anti-terror units, and ex-military controls. It should be noted that the research on career preferences and sensation seeking tends to be dated and frequently finds unusual or inconsistent patterns of scores on subscales between the population of interest and comparison groups.

Political Participation

More recent literature has explored the role of sensation seeking and political engagement. To investigate the role of “risk attitudes” on participation in a range of political activities, Kam (2012) conducted secondary data analysis on two large datasets, the 2008–2009 American National Election Study (n ≈ 2,200) and the 2011 Survey Sampling International (SSI) panel survey on “Personality and Decision-Making” (n ≈ 1,700). Kam conceptualized risk attitude “as encapsulating an individual’s preference for sensation seeking” (p. 817), and she combined “a psychophysiological risk-return model with an individual-difference approach based on sensation seeking to argue for a positive relationship between risk attitudes and political participation” (p. 817). Political participation was assessed through several items asking about past and intended future political behaviors, such as attending a political rally, attending a local meeting, and signing a paper or e-petition. Questions also assessed whether or not survey respondents had voted in past elections and whether or not they donated to religious organizations. Across both surveys, risk acceptance was strongly and consistently related to political participation, both in terms of past participation and intended future participation (although the relationship was stronger for intended future participation). Moreover, risk acceptance was not related to voter turnout and was actually negatively related to religious donations. The SSI study asked respondents to rate their reasons for participating in political activities. The most strongly endorsed reason was “I like doing new things,” and the second most endorsed reason was “It’s exciting to participate,” suggesting that sensation seeking provided a strong motive for participation. The least endorsed reason was “I have a duty as a citizen.”

Innovation Motivation

Joy (2004) was interested in studying innovation motivation, or the need to be different. Through a series of studies, he developed a scale to measure a person’s preference for innovation versus consistency and tested its relationship to a variety of constructs, including sensation seeking. He hypothesized that innovation motivation would be positively correlated with sensation seeking, especially given the HSS tendency to become bored easily (BS) and to seek a variety of experiences (ES). As predicted, sensation seeking was found to be consistently and positively related to scores on the vDiffer (“the value set on being different”) scale, with a correlation of .53 in one study (n = 101) and .35 in a second study (n = 85).

Genetic Basis for Sensation Seeking

Although the behavioral expression of sensation seeking is moderated by environmental and cultural constraints, there is considerable convergent evidence that sensation seeking is genetically based. A study of 442 pairs of identical and fraternal twins by Fulker, Eysenck, and Zuckerman (1980) provided early evidence for the genetic basis of sensation seeking. Controlling for age and sex differences, the researchers found that correlations of sensation seeking were stronger for identical than fraternal twins, and they determined that the amount of variance attributed to the heritability of sensation seeking was 58%. Subsequent studies continued to find support for the heritability of sensation seeking. Koopmans, Boomsma, Heath, and van Doornen (1995) studied 1,591 identical and fraternal twins and compared differences in scores across sensation seeking subscales. They found higher correlations across subscales for the identical twins than same-sex fraternal twins; the lowest correlations were for opposite-sex fraternal twins. Additional evidence comes from a study of twin and non-twin siblings by Stoel, De Geus, and Boomsma (2006). These researchers studied a total of 10,563 siblings (9,220 twins from 4,281 families, along with an additional 1,343 non-twin siblings from a subset of those families) and compared differences in scores across sensation seeking subscales. Similar to the findings of Koopmans et al., they found the strongest correlations among identical twins, followed by same-sex fraternal twins; correlations tended to be lowest for opposite-sex twins and non-twin siblings.

Given the genetic basis for sensation seeking, an important question is to what extent that genetic basis is associated with behavior. Compelling evidence comes from a study by Harden, Quinn, and Tucker-Drob (2012), who conducted behavioral genetic analyses in 2,562 sibling pairs to investigate the relationship between genetics, sensation seeking, and delinquent behaviors. Results provided support for a strong association. The researchers found that “within-person increases in sensation seeking were significantly and positively associated with within-person increases in delinquent behavior between the ages of 10–11 and 16–17” (p. 156), “sensation seeking predicted future levels of delinquency” (p. 156), “individual differences in change in sensation seeking from ages 10–11 to 16–17 are primarily due (83%) to genetic differences” (p. 156), and “genes influencing change in sensation seeking are significantly associated with increases in delinquency during adolescence (R2 = 30%) and account for over 80% of genetic variance in delinquency change” (p. 157).

Association of Sensation Seeking with Neurological and Physiological Responsiveness

Given the genetic basis of sensation seeking, HSS and LSS should be differentiated by more than their preferences for and participation in various behaviors. Indeed, studies show that they also can be differentiated on the basis of their neurological and physiological responses to various stimuli. Building on research that has shown that HSS may be more sensitive to intense stimuli but less sensitive to stressful stimuli, Joseph, Liu, Jiang, Lynam, and Kelly (2009) designed a study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the brain response of HSS and LSS to high and low arousal visual stimuli that had either positive or negative valence. The researchers recruited 20 HSS and 20 LSS (as defined by top and bottom quartile scores on the BSSS) who were placed in an MRI scanner and shown a total of 200 images. Results showed distinct differences in patterns of neural response to the visual images:

HSSs showed stronger fMRI responses to high-arousal stimuli in brain regions associated with arousal and reinforcement (right insula, posterior medial orbitofrontal cortex), whereas LSSs showed greater activation and earlier onset of fMRI responses to high-arousal stimuli in regions involved in emotional regulation (anterior medial orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate). . . . Finally, LSSs showed greater sensitivity to the valence of the stimuli than did HSSs.

(p. 215)

The researchers conclude, “These distinct neurobiological profiles suggest that HSSs exhibit neural responses consistent with an overactive approach system, whereas LSSs exhibit responses consistent with a stronger inhibitory system” (p. 215).

Kelly et al. (2006) designed a study to investigate potential differences in subjective, behavioral, and cardiovascular responses to d-amphetamine between HSS and LSS. Ten HSS and 10 LSS (as defined by top and bottom quartile scores on the Imp-SS) participated in the study, which required seven 4.5-hour visits to a residential research facility, each visit separated by at least 48 hours. During each visit, participants were given one of three doses of d-amphetamine (0.0, 7.5, or 15.0 mg/kg) and completed measures of subjective drug response and various psychomotor and cognitive performance tests, as well has having their heart rate monitored. Task performance and cardiovascular response showed main effects for dosage but did not differ by sensation seeking status; however, several differences in subjective drug response emerged, including feeling the effects of the drug, liking the drug, and feeling high, showing that HSS were more sensitive to the subjective effects of d-amphetamine and, therefore, at greater risk for potential misuse of the drug.

Association of Sensation Seeking with Perceptions of Risk

When considering sensation seeking’s relationship to risky behavior, it is important to note that HSS do not take risks just for the sake of risk. Instead, they take risks as a means to an end: to achieve their optimal level of stimulation. Indeed, in Kam’s (2012) study on political participation, she emphasized the psychophysical risk-return model in combination with the individual difference approach emphasizing sensation seeking to point out that sensation seekers will “weigh the subjectively perceived risks of an action against the subjectively perceived returns from that action” (p. 817) in making a decision to engage in a behavior. Two other studies shed light on how sensation seekers subjectively perceive risk.

Rosenbloom (2003) investigated the relationship between sensation seeking, risky behavior, and risk appraisal. She recruited a random sample of 75 students from a university in Israel to complete the SSS-V and measures of risk evaluation and risk taking. Results showed a positive correlation between sensation seeking and risk taking and a negative correlation between sensation seeking and risk evaluation; the former correlation remained significant when controlling for risk evaluation, and the latter remained significant when controlling for risk taking. Finally, using a median split to define HSS and LSS, Rosenbloom found a significant interaction between risk evaluation and risk taking, such that HSS were higher than LSS on risk taking but LSS were higher than HSS on risk evaluation.

Zimmermann (2010) explored the relationship between impulsivity, perceptions of risk, perceptions of benefits, and participation in risk-related behaviors. He recruited a sample of 144 14- to 20-year-old adolescents from a high school and vocational school in Switzerland. To assess sensation seeking, he used the UPPS Impulsive Behavior Scale (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001), which assess four dimensions of impulsivity: urgency, lack of premeditation, lack of perseverance, and sensation seeking. He also assessed alexithymia (the inability to identify and describe one’s emotions) and openness to emotions. Results showed that sensation seeking was positively correlated with participation in risk behaviors and perception of benefits, but it was not correlated with perceptions of risk. A regression analysis involving all variables showed that 45% of the variance in participation in risk behaviors could be attributed to perceived benefits, sensation seeking, gender, and age, and a mediation analysis showed that perceived benefits mediated the relationship between sensation seeking and risk behaviors.

Association of Sensation Seeking with Sex and Age

A consistent finding across sensation seeking literature is that men score significantly higher on sensation seeking than women. This relationship has been found in samples from multiple countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Spain, England, Scotland, Japan, and Thailand (see Zuckerman, 1994). Typically, the differences hold for the overall scale score and the subscales of TAS, Dis, and BS, but not ES. Two potential explanations for these sex differences have been offered: (a) they stem from evolutionary biological differences between men and women and (b) they stem from socialization differences, which result in stereotypically constrained behavior (e.g., risk taking is more acceptable in men than in women).

To explore these alternative explanations, Cross, Cyrenne, and Brown (2013) conducted a meta-analysis of studies that investigated sex differences using the SSS-V. Their analysis included studies over a 35-year period (1978–2012) and involved 72 articles that reported 323 effect sizes. Overall weighted effect sizes paralleled previous findings: Men scored higher than women on the total scale and on TAS, Dis, and BS, but there were no differences for ES. When Cross et al. compared scores over time, they found that sex differences in overall scores did not change, nor did differences in Dis or BS, and the lack of a sex difference for ES remained stable over time. Differences in scores for TAS, however, did change and became significantly smaller; this effect was due to men’s TAS scores decreasing over time (decreasing by more than one-third) and women’s TAS scores remaining stable. The authors discuss various explanations for these patterns of results, including changes in socialization patterns. Another explanation, of course, could be related to levels of testosterone, which are higher in men than in women but decrease in men as they age. Cross et al. concluded that researchers will develop a better understanding of sex differences in personality traits “by acknowledging that selection pressures act on both genetic and cultural inheritance pathways and that the interaction between these pathways during an individual’s lifespan results in observed sex differences in behavior” (p. 4).

In terms of age, sensation seeking generally increases throughout childhood and early adolescence, peaks in mid- to late adolescence, and declines from that point forward. These patterns hold for men and women, although there have been some differences found within subscales and across countries (see Zuckerman, 1994). The explanation for these changes in scores over time is a biological one, with sensation seeking related in part to underlying neurological and physiological development.

Steinberg et al. (2008) designed a study to investigate differences in neurobiological developmental patterns in sensation seeking and impulsivity throughout childhood and early adulthood. Reviewing literature that relates sensation seeking to developments in the socioemotional system and relates impulsivity to developments in the cognitive control system, the researchers hypothesized that sensation seeking would show a curvilinear relationship with age, whereas impulsivity would show a negative linear relationship with age. They recruited 935 10- to 30-year-old individuals across five major cities in the United States; the sample was ethnically diverse and had nearly equal numbers of females and males. Results of regression analyses showed a curvilinear effect for age and sensation seeking, with sensation seeking increasing from ages 10-11 to 12-13 and then decreasing thereafter, and a linear effect for age and impulsivity, with scores decreasing from ages 10-11 onward. Results from analyses of covariance mirrored the regression analyses. For sensation seeking, scores were significantly higher for ages 12-13 and 14-15 than ages 26-30, but there were no differences between ages 10-11 and 26-30. For impulsivity, scores were significantly higher for ages 10-11 and 12-13 than ages 26-30.

International Research

Research into sensation seeking is an international enterprise, with the sensation seeking scale (in various versions) having been translated into several languages and with studies having been conducted in a multitude of countries. Table 3 provides a brief sampling of the range and variety of international studies of sensation seeking.

Table 3. Sample of International Studies on Sensation Seeking.

Study

Topic

Sample

Antoniadou et al. (2016)

Bullying and cyber-bullying

Greek adolescents

Arnett & Balle-Jensen (1993)

Risk behavior

Danish adolescents

Ayvasik & Sumer (2010)

Illicit drug use

Turkish college students

Bachoo, Bhagwanjee, & Govender (2013)

Risky driving behavior

South African postgraduate university students

Boldak & Guszkowska (2013)

Parachuting

Polish skydivers

Bratko & Butkovic (2003)

Correlation of sensation seeking among family members

Croatian high-school students and their parents

Calafat et al. (2007)

Weekend nightlife recreational habits

Austrian, British, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish youth

Cicognani & Zani (2011)

Alcohol use

Italian college students

Galloway (2002)

Park-related attitudes and behaviors

Canadian park visitors

Kalichman, Simbayi, Jooste, Vermaak, & Cain (2008)

Risk for HIV transmission

South African STI clinic patients

Lu (2008)

Online interpersonal deception

Taiwanese college students

Matarelli (2013)

Internet sex seeking

Middle Eastern men who have sex with men

Pizam et al. (2004)

Tourist behavior

University students from Gabon, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Korea, Romania, Sicily, Slovakia, South African, Spain, and the United States

Pokhrel, Sussman, Sun, Kniazer, & Masagutov, (2010)

Social self-control and substance use

Russian and U.S. adolescents

Rawlings, Barrantes-Vidal, & Furnham (2000)

Preference for music and art

Spanish and British college students

Rosenbloom (2006)

Color preference

Israeli college students

Zimmermann (2010)

Risk taking

Swiss adolescents

When conducting research on sensation seeking across cultures and in various contexts, it is important to keep in mind that cultural and contextual features may influence the expression of sensation seeking and, therefore, may skew scores. For example, in poverty-stricken areas, people may not have access to or experience with some of the response choices on the sensation seeking scale, especially the TAS subscale items (e.g., water skiing, scuba diving). Some cultures strictly prohibit some of the response choices, as well (e.g., drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana). Adapting an existing scale to be more tailored to the population under study may be one approach for solving this problem. For example, both Byck et al. (2015) and Black, Ricardo, and Stanton (1997) revised the SSS-V to be more suitable for lower-income, African American adolescents. Although making changes to validated scales will invite concerns of measurement reliability and validity, using scales that are culturally inappropriate invites those same concerns. The development of more culturally appropriate sensation seeking scales is an area in need of additional research.

Closing Thoughts

Since Zuckerman introduced the construct of sensation seeking to the scientific community in the 1960s, it has become one of the most extensively investigated individual difference variables in the scholarly literature. It has attracted attention from researchers from a multitude of disciplines, ranging from neurophysiology and genetics to communication and psychology, and interest is not waning. As technology advances, knowledge of the biological basis of sensation seeking is advancing, as is understanding of the differences between high and low sensation seekers. Armed with this knowledge and understanding, researchers in health and risk communication can turn to sensation seeking to improve their efforts at audience targeting and to hone approaches to increasing the effectiveness of their interventions to reduce and prevent risky behavior.

Further Reading

Aluja, A., Kuhlman, M., & Zuckerman, M. (2010). Developing of the Zuckerman-Kuhlman-Aluja Personality Questionnaire (ZKA-PQ): A factor/facet version of the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (ZKPQ). Journal of Personality Assessment, 92(5), 416–431.Find this resource:

Bardo, M., Donohew, L., & Harrington, N. G. (1996). Psychobiology of novelty seeking and drug seeking behavior. Behavioural Brain Research, 77, 1–21.Find this resource:

Hoyle, R. H., Fejfar, M. C., & Miller, J. D. (2000). Personality and sexual risk taking: A quantitative review. Journal of Personality, 68(6), 1203–1231.Find this resource:

Maples-Keller, J. L., Berke, D. S., Few, L. R., & Miller, J. D. (2016). A review of sensation seeking and its empirical correlates: Dark, bright, and neutral hues. In V. Ziegler-Hill & D. K. Marcus (Eds.), The dark side of personality: Science and practice in social, personality, and clinical psychology (pp. 137–156). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Find this resource:

Roberti, J. W. (2004). A review of behavioral and biological correlates of sensation seeking. Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 256–279.Find this resource:

Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Zuckerman, M. (2005). Psychobiology of personality (2d ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Zuckerman, M. (2007). Sensation seeking and risky behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Find this resource:

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