Sensation seeking is a basic personality trait that has been defined as “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, 27). The test used to measure the construct, the Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS) has evolved from the first version, containing only a general scale, to form version V. The latter contains four subscales and a total score based on the sum of the subscales. The subscales are based on factor analyses and the results have been replicated in forms developed in many other countries. They are: (1) thrill and adventure seeking (TAS), an expressed desire to engage in physical activities or sports which are sometimes risky but provide unusual sensations of speed or defiance of gravity (e.g., parachuting, scuba diving, downhill skiing); (2) experience seeking (ES): these items describe the seeking of sensations and experiences through the mind and the senses, as through music, art, and travel, and social nonconformity and unconventionality; (3) disinhibition (Dis), i.e., seeking sensation through social activities, sex, and drinking, and associating with people who share these hedonistic preferences; and (4) boredom susceptibility (BS), which represents an intolerance for repetitious experience or predictable and unexciting people. More recently, a scale for impulsive sensation seeking (ImpSS) has been developed as part of a five-factor personality test (Zuckerman 2002).
These scales have been related to volunteering for risky activities, engaging in risky sports and vocations, smoking, drinking, using illegal drugs, preferences in art, television, movies, music, fantasy, and humor, criminality, antisocial personality, manic-depressive tendencies, as well as cognitive styles and creativity (see Zuckerman 1979, 1994, 2006). A biological basis for sensation seeking has been found in physiological characteristics like evoked cortical potentials, hormones, including testosterone and cortisol, enzymes that regulate neurotransmitters, and specific neurotransmitters, including noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine.
High sensation seekers are particularly attentive to novel stimuli. The orienting reflex (OR) is a measure of this characteristic. When a novel stimulus is presented in the visual or auditory fields, a measurable arousal response occurs in the form of a transient increase in skin conductance or deceleration in heart rate. On subsequent presentations of the stimulus these physiological reactions diminish in amplitude and disappear. The high sensation seeker shows a stronger OR to the first presentation of a stimulus when it is novel but not to subsequent presentations (Zuckerman 1990). This is particularly noted in response to stimuli containing content of interest to the high sensation seeker and high-intensity sexual and aggressive words. This preferential OR to sensational stimuli is reflected in the media preferences of high sensation seekers to sexually explicit, violent, and morbid themes (Zuckerman 1988, 1996). Sensation seekers also prefer complex designs, and intense art and music.
Donohew and his colleagues have used sensation seeking to design and target televised communications aimed at the prevention of drug abuse and risky sexual behavior (Donohew et al. 1991, 2004). Based on preliminary research on the different characteristics of messages appealing to high and low sensation seekers, they designed high stimulative messages that were novel, unusual, complex, intense, exciting, emotionally strong, graphic, ambiguous, fast-paced, and suspenseful. Another type of ad that was low stimulating, more cognitive, and emphasized the risk factors of drugs and sex was designed for low sensation seekers. They found that the high stimulus value ads were more effective for high sensation seekers in the intent to call a hotline to get more information on drugs, whereas the low stimulus value ads were more effective with the low sensation seekers. The results were then utilized in a large study of televised ads in two cities. Evidence showed that the ads not only arrested but actually reversed trends in marijuana use during the times they were aired. Studies to promote safe sex and condom use among adolescents are ongoing and already showing positive results.
The work of Donohew and colleagues shows the potential applications of sensation seeking theory to the prevention of unhealthy and risky behaviors in the real world. High sensation seekers are over-represented among those who engage in risky behaviors, so it makes sense to design communications that will engage the attention of such people and imprint their message in memory. The typical prevention messages or treatment programs that simply attempt to scare risk-takers with factual messages are not very effective.
- Donohew, L., Lorch, E., & Palmgreen, P. (1991). Sensation seeking and targeting of televised antidrug PSAs. In L. Donohew, H. E. Sypher, & W. Bullenski (eds.), Persuasive communication and drug abuse prevention. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 209–226.
- Donohew, L., Bardo, M. T., & Zimmerman, R. S. (2004). Personality and risky behavior: Communication and prevention. In R. M. Stelmack (ed.), On the psychobiology of personality: Essays in honor of Marvin Zuckerman. New York: Elsevier, pp. 223–245.
- Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Zuckerman, M. (1988). Behavior and biology: Research on sensation seeking and reactions to the media. In L. Donohew, H. E. Sypher, & E. T. Higgens (eds.), Communication, social cognition, and effect. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 173–194.
- Zuckerman, M. (1990). The psychophysiology of sensation seeking. Journal of Personality, 58, 313– 345.
- Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Zuckerman, M. (1996). Sensation seeking and the taste for vicarious horror. In J. B. Weaver, III, & R. Tamborini (eds.), Horror films: Current research on audience preferences and reactions. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 147–160.
- Zuckerman, M. (2002). Zuckerman–Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (ZKPQ): An alternative five-factorial model. In B. de Raad & M. Perugini (eds.), Big five assessment. Seattle, WA: Hogrefe and Huber, pp. 377–396.
- Zuckerman, M. (2006). Sensation seeking and risky behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.