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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.

Understanding Thrill-Seeking

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.

What is sensation-seeking?

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.” 

What are examples of sensation-seeking behavior?

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.

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Lessons from Sensation-Seekers

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.”

What can we learn from sensation-seekers?

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.

Is it good to be a risk-taker?

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.

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