Seeking Sensation

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You may think you know what kind of person is sensation seeking, but if you take the survey, you might find it’s you.

You might expect an adrenalin junkie, the kind who will jump out of a perfectly fine airplane, who will eat worms, use dangerous drugs, and who will start a fight just to have something to do. They are sensation seeking people, true; but not the only kind. A person could also be sensation seeking if you crave new experiences, like to meet different people, hate boredom, and can’t wait to see what comes next.

That is, at least, according to the conception of Ken Carter, an Emory College professor of psychology, who researches the subject and has constructed the sensation seeking scale. I would have called it an openness to experience scale, if it were me; that would have been a lot less confusing.

According to Carter, there are four components to sensation seeking. There’s thrill and adventure seeking, or physically risky behavior; what we usually think of when we think of sensation seeking. But there’s also experience seeking, disinhibition, and a susceptibility to boredom.

Carter found a genetic link to sensation seeking. People seem to be born that way. If you do not have a high sensation seeking score, new experiences make you uncomfortable, maybe even nervous and panicky. You like the familiar and predictable. You dislike change. Why on earth would you try watching a new movie if you have one you like? Why go to a new restaurant if the neighborhood diner has a twelve-page menu? Why travel to a strange place if you have everything you need right here? To those who are not sensation seeking, those who are, are needlessly reckless and irrepressible.

Carter, who confesses he has a very low sensation seeking score, was attracted to this research because he wanted to understand people who seem to take unnecessary risks. He discovered that they’re not after the risk, they’re after the reward. They don’t have a death wish, they have an edge of death wish. They just like challenge more than comfort. If it feels safe, why do it? They like to live right at the crux of the matter. Besides, what’s the point of doing things you already know you can do?

Carter found that those with high sensation seeking scores simply get to achieve more than others do. You might be surprised to hear that they have fewer injuries, perhaps because, by stretching their capabilities, they master things others do not. If they’re exposed to combat or natural disasters, they’re less likely to develop PTSD. Danger, horror, and drama feel right at home.

My own sensation seeking score was through the roof. I don’t jump out of planes, but I did leave home at the age of 19 and built a house 350 miles away. I enjoy hiking in lonely places and I’ve started two businesses. It’s one factor that led me to be a therapist and the reason I accept every client who comes along. It’s why, when I listen to tragedy, histrionics, and angst all day, I sleep well at night.

If you would like to have less of an uncomfortable reaction to novel experiences, you can do so by habituation: making them less novel, in other words. Before the railroads, people used to be terrified to travel more than 20 mph; now most will say that’s too slow. Hang around the bungee jumping platform long enough and bungee jumping will seem like the normal thing to do.

Habituation is responsible for the dark side of sensation seeking, it compels people to take greater and greater risks. If you have a loved one whose thirst for adventure causes him to do dangerous things, expressing your concern may make them think twice before trying that new club drug or joining up to be a war correspondent; but defying you may be part of the thrill. Once a person gets a taste for that feeling of mastery in the face of danger, it’s hard to give it up. The most reliable force that moderates sensation seeking is age; so, you better hope he gets old before he gets dead.

If you would like to learn more about sensation seeking and take the test, click here.