Sensation-seeking, also called thrill-seeking or excitement-seeking, is the tendency to pursue new and different sensations, feelings, and experiences. The trait describes people who chase novel, complex, and intense sensations, who love experience for its own sake, and who may take risks to pursue those experiences.
Thrill-seekers aren’t motivated by danger. They’re driven to conquer new challenges and soak up every experience life has to offer—and they simply don’t let danger dissuade them. Therefore, they may not fear the risks that accompany activities like mountaineering, cliff diving, gambling, or experimenting with drugs.
Despite the hazards of certain behaviors, risk-taking has value and serves an important evolutionary purpose. Without the courage to advance into unknown, potentially dangerous territory, human beings may not have found new mates, populated the globe, or flourished as a species.
Sensation-seeking encompasses the drive for new, exotic, and intense experiences. As pioneering psychologist Marvin Zuckerman summarized it, “sensation seeking is a personality trait defined by the search for experiences and feelings that are varied, novel, complex, and intense, and by the readiness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.”
Sensation-seeking can occur through adrenaline-filled extreme sports, like skydiving, mountain climbing, or paratrooping. But it can also be an activity that allows the person to try something completely new, like joining a dance team, or conquer a challenge, like running an ultramarathon.
Researchers today believe that the characteristic encompasses four components. First, an innate quest for adventure and risk. Second, a love for varied and novel sensations. Third, a natural ability to be disinhibited and unrestrained. Fourth, susceptibility to boredom. The extent to which individuals possess these four traits determines how they approach or avoid new sensations.
Sensation-seeking is the drive to pursue new or intense experiences, and in that process, the danger of physical, social, or financial risks can be disregarded. But risks and danger don’t motivate sensation-seekers—novelty does.
During novel experiences, the brain releases more dopamine and less norepinephrine in high sensation-seekers than low-sensation seekers. The high thrill and minimal stress may drive sensation-seekers to repeatedly seek out new, exciting experiences.
Canadian psychologist Marvin Zuckerman pioneered modern sensation-seeking research. He created the Sensation Seeking Scale (SSS) to assess how much of a sensation seeker someone is, which has since been modified into a version called the Brief Sensation-Seeking Scale (BSSS). You can take the test yourself here.
Sensation-seekers embody valuable attitudes and traits. The unique experiences they chase can cultivate joy, fulfillment, and coveted memories. New adventures provide an opportunity to grow and expand one’s sense of self.
Thrill-seekers can be proactive and helpful in their communities. Many people plan and overanalyze how to respond to a situation, and the Bystander Effect demonstrates the tendency to shy away from unsettling circumstances. But thrill-seekers charge headlong into the fray and trust themselves to respond accordingly.
Navigating rocky terrain also instills confidence in one’s ability to conquer future obstacles. Placing oneself in an unfamiliar or even perilous situation—learning to scuba dive or pilot a plane—pushes a person out of their comfort zone, forces them to pay complete attention to a task, and instills confidence in their mind, body, and instincts.
“High sensation-seekers see potential stressors as challenges to be overcome rather than threats that might crush them,” says Emory psychologist and sensation-seeking expert Kenneth Carter. “This mindset is a buffer against the stress of life.”
Thrill-seekers provide valuable lessons, such as the motivation to cultivate memorable experiences, expand one’s sense of self, and develop confidence and resilience from conquering challenges. People who don’t overanalyze or fear uncertainty are also more likely to take on leadership roles or respond in a crisis.
Thrill-seekers become resilient individuals due to the challenging goals they accomplish. And this benefit aligns with how they perceive their own experience; sensation-seekers tend to report less stress, more positive emotions, and greater life satisfaction. In addition to these beneficial outcomes, however, sensation-seeking may be accompanied by dangers as well.
Anxiety can prevent people from embarking on new experiences and adventures, but exposure therapy can help overcome those fears. Exposure therapy is the practice of gradually and safely exposing yourself to the object or situation that you fear, in order to eliminate the fear response that developed.
Research suggests that excitement and adrenaline may increase attraction, in the case of strangers, and affection, in the case of couples. The excitement from a roller coaster ride or just a suspenseful movie may intensify emotion later, so adventurous, spontaneous, and exciting experiences may help bond people together.