Chapter 20: Zuckerman – Sensation Seeking Personality Trait

Part 2: The Sensation Seeking Trait

According to Zuckerman (1979), “Sensation seeking is a trait defined by the need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experience…The high-sensation seeker is sensitive to his or her internal sensations and chooses external stimuli that maximize them” (pg. 10).

All people seem to seek an optimal level of stimulation and/or arousal.  For some, that level of arousal is quite high, for others, it is rather low.  The concept was not new when Zuckerman began to study sensory deprivation and sensation seeking.  Indeed, the examination of optimal levels of arousal dates back to the very beginning of psychology: the experimentalist Wilhelm Wundt was studying it as early as 1893 (see Zuckerman, 1979), as were Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer in 1895 (Freud and Breuer, 1895/2004).  Following the “brainwashing” techniques used by the Chinese during the Korean War, the Canadian government pursued research on sensory deprivation, work led by D. O. Hebb.  Following this early research, Zuckerman began his own investigations. Generally, sensory deprivation leads to increased anxiety, somatic discomfort, and thinking and concentration difficulties.  In addition, many of the subjects experienced both auditory and visual hallucinations. None of the effects of sensory deprivation seemed to correlate with any personality variables (Zuckerman et al., 1962).  It was because of these profound effects of sensory deprivation that Zuckerman began to pursue the underlying variable that leads individuals to their optimal level of arousal.

The Sensation Seeking Scale has been revised a number of times.  The fifth version was developed in collaboration with Hans and Sybil Eysenck, and included comparisons of males to females and American students to English students (see Zuckerman, 1979, 1994).  Using factor analysis, Zuckerman and his colleagues have identified four subscales within the sensation seeking trait:

Thrill and Adventure Seeking:  Many people enjoy engaging in risky sports and other potentially dangerous experiences that produce unique sensations related to speed or defying gravity, such as rock climbing, BASE jumping, or drag racing.  This factor is exemplified by the sports included in the X Games.

This is a color photograph of a person base jumping off of a cliff. The person is floating in mid-air above the snow-covered land. Snowy mountains are pictured in the distance.
Image Source: Skeeze. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Experience Seeking:  This factor encompasses novel sensations and experiences, such as arousing music, art, and travel.  It also incorporates social nonconformity, particularly associated with belonging to groups on the fringes of conventional society.

Disinhibition:  This factor covers sensation seeking that focuses on social activities, such as parties, drinking, illegal drugs, and sex.

This color photograph shows eight people sitting and standing around a campfire by the ocean.
Image Source: Free-Photos. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Boredom Susceptibility:  Individuals who score high on this factor cannot tolerate any kind of repetitive experience, including routine work and boring people.

Sensation seeking should not be confused with being reckless.  For example, individuals who are high sensation seekers are more likely to have varied sexual experiences, but they are not more likely to avoid using condoms.  They may be more inclined to drive fast, but they are not less likely to use their seatbelts. And rock and ice climbers take full advantage of safety gear, they study self-rescue techniques, and they check their gear carefully before each trip.  However, adolescence may be a particularly risky time, since there is a temporal gap between the onset of puberty, during which adolescents are highly thrill seeking, and the slow maturation of the cognitive-control systems that govern such behavior in adulthood (Steinberg, 2007).  It is also important to note that it is neither good nor bad to score high or low on this scale:

In this sociobiological sense, the high sensation seeker is a hunter and the low sensation seeker is a farmer.  Hunters are positively excited by change, danger, and the variety and unpredictability of the hunt. They need a strong capacity to focus attention on the prey while remaining alert to other factors like the direction of the wind and the movements of other hunters.  Farmers, in contrast, depend on stability of the environment (rainfall, sun, and other seasonal regularities of climate). Plants grow slowly and require patience and tedious kinds of labor to insure their survival. (pp. 384-385; Zuckerman, 1994)

During the course of his research, Zuckerman found a close relationship between sensation seeking and impulsivity.  If he limited his factor analysis to five factors, as Costa and McCrae had, impulsivity and sensation seeking always combined to form a factor that he called impulsive sensation seeking.  This proved to be rather curious, since impulsivity was a substrate of neuroticism, whereas “excitement seeking” was a substrate of extraversion.  Another problem that Zuckerman expressed with regard to the Five-Factor Model was his belief that words like “conscientiousness” have no meaning in species other than humans.  Since Zuckerman favors a biological/genetic basis for personality, there should be evolutionary correlates of any personality structure in other animals, particularly the closely related apes.  Thus, Zuckerman examined his data, conducted a factor analysis, and offered an alternative to the Five-Factor Model. His five factors are sociability, neuroticism-anxiety, impulsive sensation seeking, aggression-hostility, and activity (Zuckerman, 2006).  While Zuckerman did not intend for his five factors to match those of Costa and McCrae exactly, it is easy to see a relationship between sociability and agreeableness, activity and extraversion, sensation seeking and openness, and neuroticism and neuroticism.  Aggression-hostility, however, seems to relate more to Eysenck’s factor psychoticism. Thus, there remains a need for continued research into this field, particularly as it pertains to the evolutionary basis for personality factors, but Eysenck, Costa, McCrae, and Zuckerman have provided an excellent and coherent basis for further research.

Which areas of Zuckerman’s sensation seeking trait do you find most interesting, and which subscales do you think you would score high on (they may not be the same)?  If there are any subscales on which you think you would score either low or high, what impression do you have of people who have an opposite score on those same scales?

Grit – Getting Things Done

Another specific trait that has become somewhat popular recently in higher education has been called grit by Angela Duckworth and her colleagues (see Duckworth et al., 2007).  Grit is defined as the perseverance and passion necessary to accomplish long-term goals.  In particular, it refers to the ability to continue striving toward those goals despite temporary failure, adversity, and plateaus in one’s progress.  Although much of the research on grit has focused on academic goals, grit does not correlate well with intelligence. Rather, it correlates highly with the Big-Five trait of conscientiousness.

We used to believe that individuals who become experts in a particular area (whether it’s math, playing a musical instrument, playing chess, or competing in athletic events, etc.) had some innate ability or talent for their skill.  However, Anders Ericsson proposed and studied a different theoretical framework. Although an individual may show some early talent in a particular domain, what resulted in their becoming an expert, or a star athlete, was the intensive deliberate practice that followed, often taking many years before the individual truly excelled (Anders Ericsson, 2004; Anders Ericsson et al., 1993).  Working together, Duckworth, Ericsson, and a few of their colleagues showed that deliberate practice is the key to success in an academic competition that tends to fascinate many people because of just how difficult it is: the National Spelling Bee (Duckworth et al., 2010).

Whether it’s grit, consciousness, or the associated behavior of deliberate practice, those who continue to strive toward their goals tend to succeed not only in school, but also in most aspects of life, including life satisfaction and earning a good income (Duckworth & Carlson, 2013; Duckworth et al., 2012).  But what can, perhaps, interfere with one’s ability and/or motivation to continue striving toward one’s goals? It appears that life stress in early adolescence can significantly impair one’s ability to strive toward a positive and fruitful future (Duckworth et al., 2013). It’s quite possible that since adolescence is the time of developing one’s identity, according to Erik Erikson, and identity associated with negative life events and stress is incompatible with maintaining grit.

As I mentioned above, this is an area only recently becoming well-known (i.e., popular) in the field of higher education.  It is likely to become an increasingly significant factor in how we work toward helping students achieve their goals, whether academic or in other aspects of their lives.


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 Copyright © 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.