Sensation-Seeking & Risk-Taking

Sensation-Seeking and Risk Taking Photograph courtesy of Greater Good Science CentreOpens in new window

In the 1970s, American Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman began publishing articles and book chapters about sensation-seeking, a personality trait he had been studying for a number of years. Zuckerman (1979) defined sensation-seeking”as

“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” (p. 10).

Sensation-seeking has four components:

  1. thrill and adventure seeking (an attraction to activities that are physically risky)
  2. experience seeking (an interest in novel experiences in the domains of music, art, travel, meeting unusual people, mood-altering drugs, and others)
  3. disinhibition (pleasure seeking through parties, gambling, sex with new and various partners, drinking, and so forth)
  4. boredom susceptibility (tendency to become bored by routines and by predictable experiences with people).

Zukerman has tried to explain the existence of this trait through investigating potential underlying biological factors (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000). He has identified a promising biological mechanism, activity of the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). MAO breaks down neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain), effectively blocking some neurotransmitters (firing of neurons).

MAO functions to regulate the firing of neurons through decreasing the firing. According to research, individuals who are high in sensation-seeking may have unusually low levels of MAO. Zuckerman reasons that in these individuals, an increase in firing of certain neurons may result, leading to less control over behavior, thoughts, and emotions. Conversely, people who are high MAO have more control over behavior, inhibiting their risky impulses.

A number of trait researchers view sensation-seeking as a component of the broader trait of extraversion (e.g., Eysenck & Zuckerman, 1978).

ExtraversionOpens in new window is one of the most well-known and well-researched traits in personality psychology. Its primary components are sociability, positive emotion, activity and assertiveness, and possibly sensation-seeking and impulsivity.

Assessing an individual’s level of extraversion (typically using self-report questionnaires) can be useful in a variety of contexts, including career counseling, marital or relationship counseling, and team building on the job.

Sensation-seeking has now been studied in many life domains: sport (often extreme sports), social behavior, choice of vocation, sexual behavior, economic behavior such as investing and trading, gambling, drug and alcohol use or abuse, criminal behavior, and others.

Zuckerman’s (2006) book Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior reviews much of this research. In addition to the attention that sensation-seeking has received in academia, it has also inspired interest among the general public. Numerous Websites invite browsers to take a sensation-seeking test or discuss sensation-seeking in a particular life context, for example, sports or sexual behavior.

See Also:
  1. Zuckerman, M. (2006). Sensation seeking and risky behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Eysenck, S.B., & Zuckerman, M. (1978). The relationship between sensation-seeking and Eysenck’s dimensions of personality. British Journal of Psychology, 69, 483 – 487.
  3. Joseph, J. E., Liu, X., Jiang, Y., Lynam, D., & Kelly, T. H. (2009). Neural correlates of emotional reactivity in sensation seeking. Psychological Science, 20, 215 – 223.
  4. Zuckerman, M., & Kuhlman, D.M. (2000). Personality and risk-taking: Common biosocial factors. Journal of Personality, 68, 999 – 1029.