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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), contains four subscales: (1) thrill and adventure seeking (TAS), an expressed desire to engage in risky physical activities or sports that provide unusual sensations of speed or defiance of gravity; (2) experience seeking (ES): 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. A fifth may be added as part of a five-factor personality test (Zuckerman 2002): (5) impulsive sensation seeking (ImpSS). 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.
Researchers have been particularly interested in relating sensation seeking theory to the prevention of unhealthy and risky behaviors. Highsensation 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. Another area of application has been the relationship between sensation seeking and exposure to media content.
- 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. (2007). Sensation seeking and risky behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.