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Sensation Seeking


Sensation seeking is a personality trait with a biological basis defined by the "seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financials risks for the sake of such experience" (Zuckerman, 1994, p. 27).

Sensation seeking is conceptualized as a trait with underlying biological mechanisms (Zuckerman, 1979a, 1984). Individual differences in one's biological composition explain why some individuals prefer more stimulation than others do. Zuckerman (1994), for example, argued that ''the appetite for arousing stimulation and experience, whether direct or vicarious, is based in significant part on biological mechanisms, and individual differences in this appetite are based on variations in the underlying biological mechanisms as well as the outcomes of experience associated with such stimuli'' (p. 174).

Sensation seeking has been associated with participation in a number of risky activities (Zuckerman, 1979a; 1994) including unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, heavy drinking, drug abuse, driving under the influence of alcohol, etc. High and low sensation seekers tend to appraise risk differently (Horvath & Zuckerman, 1993; Zuckerman, 1979b). High sensation seekers seek out activities that provide greater arousal and they expect that they will experience less anxiety than low sensation seekers if they were in risky situations (Zuckerman, 1979b).

Sensation seeking is a central concept in the Activation Model of Information Exposure (Donohew, Lorch, & Palmgreen, 1998; Donohew, Palmgreen, & Duncan, 1980). The Activation Model theorizes about the relationship between a person's need for stimulation and attention to media messages, based in part on a person's optimal level of arousal. Stephenson and Southwell (2006) extend the Activation Model by suggesting ways sensation seeking can be utilized in the areas of cancer prevention and treatment communication.

Suggested Measure

There is a substantial history of sensation seeking scale development. Sensation seeking is typically measured using Form V of the Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS-V; Zuckerman, Eysenck, & Eysenck, 1978). SSS-V is a 40-item measure using a forced-choice format. Although the SSS-V has been used extensively in a variety of contexts, it is not optimal for use in many common research contexts because of its length and format. Thus, the first index presented is an eight-item Brief Sensation Seeking Scale (BSSS) from Hoyle, Stephenson, Palmgreen, Lorch, & Donohew (2002). It is based on the four dimensions measured in the SSS-V. Internal consistency of the eight-item index was 0.76.

Experience seeking

1. I would like to explore strange places.
2. I would like to take off on a trip with no pre-planned routes or timetables.

Boredom susceptibility

3. I get restless when I spend too much time at home.
4. I prefer friends who are excitingly unpredictable.

Thrill and adventure seeking

5. I like to do frightening things.
6. I would like to try bungee jumping.


7. I like wild parties.
8. I would love to have new and exciting experiences, even if they are illegal.

Responses are indicated on five-point scales labeled from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

There are a number of sensation seeking measures that are context-dependent, meaning that they focus on a person's need for arousal in a defined domain, such as sex. A sexual sensation seeking index was developed by Kalichman, and colleagues (Kalichman, Johnson, Adair, Rompa, Multhauf, & Kelly, 1994; Kalichman & Rompa, 1995). Sexual sensation seeking was operationally defined as "the propensity to attain optimal levels of sexual excitement and to engage in novel sexual experiences" (Kalichman et al, 1994, p. 387). The scale was developed by revising several items from the Zuckerman, Eysenck, & Eysenck (1978) sensation seeking index to reflect sexual themes. For example, the item "I like wild 'uninhibited' parties" was revised to read, "I like wild 'uninhibited' sexual encounters"; I enjoy watching sexy scenes in movies" was revised to "I enjoy watching ‘X-rated' videos," etc. Items were placed on 4-point scales ranging from 1 not at all like me to 4 very much like me. Sexual sensation seeking scale α= .75.

  1. I like wild "uninhibited" sexual encounters.
  2. I have made promises I did not mean to keep to get a person to have sex with me.
  3. I have felt curious about having anal intercourse without a condom.
  4. I enjoy the company of "sensual" people.
  5. I enjoy watching "X-rated" videos.
  6. I have said things that were not exactly true to get a person to have sex with me.
  7. I am interested in trying out new sexual experiences.
  8. I feel like exploring my sexuality.
  9. I like new and exciting sexual experiences and sensations.

Kalichman et al, 1994 also developed a nonsexual experience sensation seeking scale, which is similar to the BSSS above. Alpha = .79

  1. I can see myself seeking pleasures around the world with "exciting" people.
  2. I would like parachute jumping.
  3. I sometimes like to do things that are a little frightening.
  4. I enjoy the feeling of fast driving or riding in a speeding car.
  5. I get bored seeing the same old faces.
  6. I usually don't enjoy a movie or a play where I can predict what will happen in advance.
  7. I have been known by my friends as a "risk taker."
  8. I would enjoy the sensations of skiing very fast down a high mountain slope.
  9. While driving, I will sometimes try to run yellow lights for the thrill of it.
  10. ould like to try "bungee jumping."

Items were placed on 4-point scales ranging from 1 not at all like me to 4 very much like me.

In a large survey of more than 3000 8th graders, Slater (2003) measured sensation seeking using just two items. Respondents were asked how often they 1) did dangerous things for fun, and 2) did exciting things even if they are dangerous. The alpha for this index was .83.

Stephenson, Hoyle, Palmgreen,&Slater (2003) tested four sensation seeking indexes ranging from 19 items (impulsive sensation seeking, Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personal questionnaire, Zuckerman et al., 1993, α = .86) to a two-item index (mentioned above, SS2, Slater, 2003, α = .81). Also included were the eight-item BSSS (mentioned above, Hoyle, et al., 2002, α = .74) and a four-item index (BSSS-4, α = .66). The BSSS-4 was comprised of the following items:

  1. I would like to explore strange places
  2. I like to do frightening things
  3. I like new and exciting experiences, even if I have to break the rules; and
  4. I prefer friends who are exciting and unpredictable.
Both the four- and a two-item measure (BSSS-4 and SS2) performed similarly to the longer measures based on data Stephenson et al. collected from more than 5000 teens and pre-teens in grades 7 through 11. "All of the indexes correlated as expected with a series of risk and protective factors as well as tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use" (Stephenson et al, 2003, p. 279).

Finally, Arnett (1994) developed the 20-item Arnet Inventory of Sensation Seeking (AISS), which focused solely on 2 subscales: novelty and intensity of stimuli. Arnet says that the benefits of his scale are that it contains no age-related items and that it contains no illegal or non-normative behaviors. The Scale was compared to Form V of the SSS (Zuckerman et al., 1978). In an adolescent sample, the AISS correlated more strongly across several risk behaviors than Form V, including unprotected sex, driving under the influence, and marijuana use. The scale also showed the adolescents were higher sensation seekers than adults and that males were found to be higher sensation seekers than females. Internal consistency was .70 for the entire scale, and .64 for the Intensity subscale and .50 for the Novelty subscale.

Rationale for Selection

These items were chosen because they represent a range of contexts in which sensation seeking has been reliably measured. They provide a flavor of the types of items that are typically used in current research, and they can be adapted to a particular health context under study.


Alphas for sensation seeking tend to have a broad range in the literature (e.g., .66 to .86) depending on the unique context of a study and the particular risky behavior considered. The items selected as examples here have a range (.74 to .86).

Use of Measure (with examples)

Many studies that have found significant relations between sensation seeking and risky behaviors, including high-risk sports (Jack & Ronan, 1998), risky sexual behavior (Donohew et al., 2000; Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000; Zuckerman et al., 1976), criminal activities (Perez & Torrubia, 1985), smoking (Zuckerman, Ball, & Black, 1990; Zuckerman et al., 1972; Zuckerman & Neeb, 1980), heavy drinking (Johnson & Cropsey, 2000; Schwarz et al., 1978), reckless driving and driving under the influence (Arnett, 1990, 1995; Jonah, 1997; Yu & Williford, 1993; Zuckerman & Neeb, 1980), and gambling and drug use and abuse (Satinder & Black, 1984).

Studies using normal college student populations also support a positive association between sensation seeking and substance abuse. Zuckerman et al. (1990) found that sensation seeking is highly correlated with smoking among college students and that, among the smokers, high-sensation seekers inhaled more than low-sensation seekers. Johnson and Cropsey (2000) found that high-sensation seekers are more likely to play drinking games than low-sensation seekers and that high-sensation seekers consume more at a single playing occasion than low-sensation seekers. Noar, Zimmerman, Palmgreen, Lustria, & Horosewski (2006) measured sexual sensation seeking using Kalichman et al.'s (1994) 11-item sexual sensation-seeking scale in the context of condom use.

Sensation seeking is most often applied as a predictor variable. When sensation seeking is used as a variable in a predictive model of a health behavior, it is sometimes treated as a mediating variable (e.g., Clayton, Cattarello, & Walden, 1991) or as a moderating variable (e.g., Everett & Palmgreen, 1995; Schoenbachler & Whittler, 1996; Slater, Hayes, & Ford, 2007).

Range of Items Used

Zuckerman et al. (1978) developed and tested the 72-item SSS Form IV, a shortened version of the SSS Experimental Form III (Zuckerman, 1971), which contained 113 items. The Sensation Seeking Scale for Children (Russo et al., 1993) is a forced-choice measure that comprises 26 items from the SSS-V revised for use with children. The Arnett Inventory of Sensation Seeking (Arnett, 1994) is a 20-item self-report measure of sensation seeking based on a conceptualization of sensation seeking that includes two dimensions: need for intense stimulation and need for novel stimulation. The 21 impulsive sensation seeking items from the Zuckerman–Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (Zuckerman et al., 1993) assess sensation seeking as reconceptualized in Zuckerman's (1994) psychobiological model of personality.

Additional Commentary

A. Lang, Chung, Lee, Schwartz, and Shin (2005) note that Zuckerman (1996) further suggested that sensation seeking be reconceptualized in terms of individual differences in the basic behavioral mechanisms, the appetitive (approach) and aversive (avoidance) responses to novel and intense stimuli (Cacioppo, Gardner, & Berntson, 1999). Individual differences in at-rest activation of the appetitive and aversive motivational systems were found to correlate with sensation seeking (A. Lang, Shin & Lee, 2005). That is, a person's whose default level of activation of the appetitive system is higher (positivity offset) is more likely to engage in risky behaviors (e.g., alcohol, cigarette, marijuana use), as would a high sensation seeker. Similarly, a person whose default level of activation of the aversive system is higher (negativity bias) is less likely to engage in risky behaviors, as would a low sensation seeker. The measure is based on participants' responses to 90 pictures taken from the IAPS CD-ROM (P. J. Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 1997). This approach to individual differences of default motivation system levels is recent and ongoing.


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