Chapter 20: Zuckerman – Sensation Seeking Personality Trait

Part 1: Marvin Zuckerman

Marvin Zuckerman represents the current approach taken by many psychologists who study traits.  He developed an interest in one particular trait, and he has studied that trait in great detail.  He called it sensation seeking, and in order to study it carefully, he also developed the Sensation Seeking Scale.  The study of this trait has enjoyed a certain popular appeal, exemplified by the success of the X Games and, more recently, the popularity of televised mixed martial arts competitions.

Zuckerman was the son of a mechanical engineer who came to America from Russia.  His mother’s father had also come from Russia, and both sides of the family had a tradition of their sons becoming rabbis.  As a boy, Zuckerman enjoyed playing football, but most of his sensation seeking centered on reading adventure books. He first became interested in psychology when he encountered a book about graphology.  When he entered the University of Kentucky, he experienced the “disinhibitory joys of drinking, sex, and hitchhiking around the country” (pg. 46; Zuckerman, 1993). He then suffered a period of depression, during which he discovered the work of Sigmund Freud.  He decided to become a psychoanalyst, so, after serving his duty in the army (following World War II), attended New York University. Unfortunately, a bad grade in chemistry made it impossible to get into the medical school of his choice, so he chose to begin the graduate program in clinical psychology at NYU.

Zuckerman found it difficult to find an area of psychology that appealed to him, except for a vague interest in experimental studies that suggested an “exploratory drive,” something we might also call curiosity, in a variety of animal species.  Zuckerman also found clinical work unfulfilling, so he began to focus more on conducting research. He spent a few years at a hospital and then a psychiatric research institute in Indiana, where he began studying sensory deprivation (see, e.g., Zuckerman et al., 1962).  In contrast to sensory deprivation, he also began to study sensation seeking, its apparent counterpart. After several moves, including the threat of being fired from Adelphi University due to newspaper photos of the college professor arrested and lying in the local jail (following his involvement in a protest against racism), in 1968 he joined the faculty of the University of Delaware.  Since he found it difficult to find continued funding for sensory deprivation research, he began to focus on sensation seeking itself. In 1975, Zuckerman took a sabbatical to work with Hans Eysenck, leading to the publication of some joint papers, and Zuckerman’s eventual contribution to Eysenck’s second festschrift (see Zuckerman, 1997).  His work on sensation seeking, and his relationship with Eysenck, have led Zuckerman to become one of today’s leading proponents of the biological basis of personality.  He retired in 2002, but has remained busy enjoying life, giving talks, writing, and conducting research (Zuckerman, 1983, 1991, 2006).


Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.