In This Article Sensation Seeking

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Development of Sensation Seeking Scales
  • Convergent and Divergent Validity of the Sensation-Seeking Scales
  • Impulsive Sensation Seeking and Non-Impulsive Sensation Seeking
  • Developmental Course

Psychology Sensation Seeking
Joseph Glicksohn, Marvin Zuckerman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0076


Many personality traits are popular sources of research for a short time, and then, like the constructs on which they are based, they gradually fade away. In contrast, Sensation Seeking (otherwise known as Novelty Seeking, Arousal Seeking, Excitement Seeking, and other “seeking” labels) has had a steady increase in citations over the half century since the first published paper. The construct of Sensation Seeking, as developed by Marvin Zuckerman, derived from his prior research in the field of sensory or perceptual deprivation (this area of research is now referred to as “restricted environmental stimulation”). The first scale designed to predict results in these experiments on sensory deprivation was based on postulated differences in an “optimal level of stimulation,” with reference to the intensity of the stimulation. However, both these experiments and the content of the early scales showed that novelty and complexity of stimuli were also sources of motivation for the sensation seeker, and they predicted a wide range of behavioral phenomena, including volunteering, sexual behavior, relationships, smoking, drinking, drug use and abuse, risky driving, sports and other activities, vocational choices, and media, entertainment, art, and music preferences. Interest in the optimal level of stimulation and the related “optimal level of arousal” led to the first studies using psychophysiology. These studies showed a stronger reaction to novel stimuli and a greater cortical response to high-intensity stimuli in high sensation seekers, and more cortical inhibition in response to high-intensity stimuli in low sensation seekers. This latter relationship was confirmed in other species, particularly cats and rats, in which the relationship was with behavioral differences, suggestive of sensation seeking in humans. The fact that the psychophysiological marker for sensation seeking could be found in other species suggests an evolutionary origin for the trait extending back before the evolution of the human species. It also suggests a strong genetic component in the trait, confirmed in biometric twin studies. More recently, a specific dopamine receptor gene has been associated with novelty seeking in some but not all studies. In the 1970s, psychopharmacological studies showed a relationship between the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) and sensation seeking. This finding shifted the focus of the biological theory of the trait to the monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain that are involved in approach, inhibition, and arousal—dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, respectively. Sensation seeking was postulated as being characterized by strong approach and weak inhibition (impulsivity) and arousal in approach-avoidance conflict situations. The balance between monoamine reactivities and such conflict is hypothesized to be the biological predisposition encoded in the genes.

General Overviews

Zuckerman 1969 suggested that the notion of an optimal level of arousal (or optimal level of stimulation), which fueled much of the research in this area, could also provide the basis for understanding individual differences in response to the environment. The sensation seeker was viewed as one who was on a never-ending upward spiral of hedonistic behavior in search of an optimal level of arousal, where a previous level attained would now be habituated. With the publication of Zuckerman 1979, summarizing the first decade of research following Zuckerman 1969, this notion was abandoned in favor of one going beyond a simple cortical optimal level of arousal. In Zuckerman 1991, an optimal level of catecholamine systems activity was proposed to replace the optimal level of arousal. A few years later, Zuckerman could write in the preface to his new survey of the field, Zuckerman 1994, that between 1979 and 1990 an additional 400 publications had appeared. (Between 2009 and 2012, roughly 1,000 publications appeared each year.) Zuckerman 1994 was further updated in Zuckerman 2007. In these various volumes, and in Zuckerman 2008, a chapter in the Sage Handbook of Personality and Assessment, the origins of the construct are presented, as are the various questionnaires and the story of their development. An additional useful review of this literature will be found in Roberti 2004. It is important to stress that, with newer surveys of the literature appearing, some lines of investigation are developed, while others fall by the side, as it were. The notion of an optimal level of arousal has, however, not been abandoned, and is still used in discussions of sensation seeking. A further theoretical development of the construct of sensation seeking (SS) came about as Zuckerman investigated a plausible alternative to the Big Five theory of personality, within which SS would be embedded as a primary personality trait—though appearing now as a hybrid trait termed Impulsive Sensation Seeking (ImpSS). For the origins of this construct, and Zuckerman’s “Alternative Five” model of personality, one can refer to the reviews appearing in Zuckerman 2007 and Zuckerman 2008, as well as Zuckerman, et al. 1991, a presentation of the authors’ research, leading to the construction of the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (ZKPQ).

  • Roberti, J. W. 2004. A review of behavioral and biological correlates of sensation seeking. Journal of Research in Personality 38.3: 256–279.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0092-6566(03)00067-9E-mail Citation »

    This is a thorough overview of the literature on sensation seeking (both risky and nonrisky forms) and its relationship with other personality factors. The author notes that high sensation seekers tend to cluster with one another in mutual attraction to various experiences, and that this further influences peer alcohol and marijuana usage.

  • Zuckerman, M. 1969. Theoretical formulations: 1. In Sensory deprivation: Fifteen years of research. Edited by J. P. Zubek, 407–432. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

    E-mail Citation »

    The experimental situation of sensory or perceptual deprivation was conceived as a means to alter an individual’s level of cortical arousal. High sensation seekers would be most affected, and would strive to increase their level of cortical activity in an attempt to achieve an optimal level of cortical arousal.

  • Zuckerman, M. 1979. Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    E-mail Citation »

    As Zuckerman notes, the construct of sensation seeking evolved out of his research in the field of sensory or perceptual deprivation; that type of environment may have represented a “trip” for these individuals. As the title suggests, Zuckerman advocated going beyond the striving for an optimal level of cortical arousal (meaning looking for a different motivational base for the trait, rather than the one suggested by the search for an optimal level—this base would be the striving for new experiences—see Zuckerman 2007).

  • Zuckerman, M. 1991. Psychobiology of personality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    As Zuckerman writes, Sensation Seeking was originally based on an optimal level of arousal for the cortical system, but now refers to an “optimal level of catecholamine system activity.” Nevertheless, because the noradrenergic system seems to serve cortical arousal functions, some of the predictions will remain the same.

  • Zuckerman, M. 1994. Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this update to Zuckerman 1979, Zuckerman now suggests that sensation seeking seems to be limited to sensation and does not include a need for cognitive experience (i.e., sensations are generally more arousing than cognitions). He relates sensation seeking to hyperactivity (ADHD), and also to both hypoarousal and arousability.

  • Zuckerman, M. 2007. Sensation seeking and risky behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/11555-000E-mail Citation »

    This is an update to Zuckerman 1994, emphasizing risky behavior. Zuckerman writes that the sensation-seeking need to achieve an optimal level of cortical arousal was rejected in Zuckerman 1979, and that he now regards arousal as being epiphenomenal (that is, this increase in arousal is a side effect of the search for, and experience of, novel sensations). Sensation seekers are open to new experiences and sensations, and also to divergent ideas.

  • Zuckerman, M. 2008. Personality and sensation seeking. In The SAGE handbook of personality theory and assessment. Vol. 1, Personality theories and models. Edited by G. J. Boyle, G. Matthews, and D. H. Saklofske, 379–398. London: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a current update on the field, covering similar sections to those of the present overview. Sensation seeking is both a personality trait and a motive, and it has a strong genetic component. Zuckerman suggests that the sensation seeker is an explorer in either outer space or inner space.

  • Zuckerman, M., D. M. Kuhlman, M. Thornquist, and H. Kiers. 1991. Five (or three) robust questionnaire scale factors of personality without culture. Personality and Individual Differences 12.9: 929–941.

    DOI: 10.1016/0191-8869(91)90182-BE-mail Citation »

    Presents the five dimensions of Zuckerman’s model of personality: Sociability, Neuroticism-Anxiety, Aggression-Hostility, Impulsive-Unsocialized-Sensation Seeking, and Activity. Analyses were controlled for gender. The authors conclude that while three- or five-factor models are equally robust, the five-factor model is preferable, because it provides maximal specificity at no loss in reproducibility across gender.

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