Friday, September 14, 2012

Sensation Seekers Are Not All Death-Defiers

I am sure many people have heard of sensation seekers, or adrenaline junkies. The research we have on these individuals is based mostly on the work of Marvin Zuckerman and his collaborators, though some of the information on stimulus motives can be traced to Harlow's work in the 1950s.

Motivation: the process by which activities are started, directed, and continued so that physical or psychological needs or wants are met [I will create a future blog post on the different between a want and a need]. Motivation is essentially what "moves" us, what inspires us, what gets us to do things. Motivation is the "holy grail" of psychology and marketing. To accurately and scientifically unlock the secrets of human motivation would allow us to not only predict human behavior more consistently (no more "average" or "mean" statistics, but actual precise numbers!), but it would also allow us to consistently and successfully direct behaviors. Perhaps the potential evils would outweigh the benefits and this is why we have not cracked the code yet.

One school of thought on motivation comes in the form of arousal theory. Arousal theory, stemming from the Yerkes-Dodson law, proposes that every person has an ideal/optimal level of arousal or psychological tension needed for our best performance. This optimal level of arousal is determined by 1) an individual's personality and 2) the particular task at hand. One of the personality factors to look at is whether or not the individual seems to be driven by stimulus motives.

Stimulus motive: a motive that appears to be unlearned but causes an increase in stimulation. Many stimulus motives have been mentioned in the research literature. Four main categories seem to stick out a bit more than the others, however.
  • Need for information: the drive to satisfy one's curiosity, to gain knowledge, to constantly learn and gather more information. Someone with a high need for information is something of a data or news junky (I count myself in this category). This person can get lost for hours on the Internet reading, research, collecting articles and information. They may be the first to learn the latest gossip. They hate feeling left in the dark about certain (sometimes all) subjects.
  •  Need for exploration: the drive to try something new, to avoid routine. A person with a high need for exploration becomes depressed if their life starts to take on too much routine. Don't get me wrong; they can handle some stability such as getting to work and home and such each day. However, the way things are done are often changed. For example, they may pick a new route to work or decide to make their phone calls before answering emails or pick a new place to eat lunch. Someone with a need for exploration likes to mix it up when things start to look too similar. And, contrary to popular belief, it does not always have to be something entirely new that satisfies them. It could be watching a movie that they haven't watched in years. If it was a long enough gap between experiences, then that is usually acceptable. A high need for exploration will also encourage people to go over a similar area in the hopes of finding something new that they did not notice before.
  •  Need for manipulation: the drive for hands-on experiences. An individual with a high need for manipulation does not like to sit back and receive life. They like to actively engage in it. This person would much rather stick their hand in a mysterious box than observe and hypothesize about what the box might contain. They occasionally dive in feet first to see what would happen. Planning is not nearly as important as experiencing. They may have a tendency to experiment, though not necessarily in new ways, as someone with a high need for exploration might do. Experimentation for a person with a need for manipulation may involve engaging in the same activity multiple times, especially if the first trials were successful. They don't mind confirming their discoveries again and again. As far as entertainment goes, they would much rather participate than watch, even if they have done it dozens of times before.
  • Need for sensation or sensory input: the drive for sensory stimulation (touch, taste, hearing, sight, smell). Someone with a high need for sensory input does not like feeling bored. They relish entertainment and excitement. They are capable of finding satisfaction in passive entertainment, so long as it is entertainment; it does not have to be actively engaging as it would be for a high need for manipulation. Yes, some sensation seekers are adrenaline junkies. The rush of stress hormones (primarily adrenaline) that a person gets during a free-fall or a roller coaster drop or loop does bring satisfaction to many sensation seekers. However, a person with a high need for sensory input can also find satisfaction for their needs through good food (taste), music (sound), action sequences in a movie or TV show (visual & auditory stimulation) or with enough decoration on a room's wall (vision). The sensation does not have to be overly exciting all the time, it just has to be there. Boredom leads to depression for a sensation seeker. You may come across someone who is a sensation seeker with acrophobia (fear of heights). They would satisfy their need for sensory input not by putting themselves in danger, but by finding other sources of entertainment such as a concert with a lot of special effects.
The thing to remember about these stimulus motives is that they are an unlearned part of a person's personality. Your personality is something that is partially genetic, partially a culmination of your life experiences and your interpretation of those experiences. Your personality is also something that is extremely difficult to change. Unless it is maladaptive and a real danger to yourself and others--personality disorders--there is no reason for anyone to apologize for who they are or for what they find motivating in life. The more we accept people, the less we try to "convert" them into copies of us, the richer life and this world will be.