Does One Form of Sensation-Seeking Substitute for Another?

In the last post Ruth, a mental health nurse, discussed how she had been more willing to participate in risky activities such as bungee jumping while she was working in prisons. This led to a discussion of changes in perception of identity that may be associated with drug taking by young people who are seeking to escape from emotional pain. Ruth discussed how mental health patients with a history of drug use could be helped to perceive a wider set of possibilities for their future lives.

This post explores implications of evidence that some adolescents take drugs as a form of sensation seeking. A literature review by Jonathan Roberti notes that sensation seeking individuals tend to engage in behaviours that increase the amount of stimulation they experience. Sensation seeking is more common among young males than other groups. While risk-taking is involved it is not a primary motive – high sensation seekers tend to appraise risky and stressful situations as less threatening than do low sensation seekers.

Sensation-seeking is associated with stimulating occupational choices e.g. a desire for greater novelty and flexibility in work and with choice of risky vocations such as fire fighting. It is also associated with a preference for arousing music e.g. hard rock; travel to less familiar places; participation in relatively risky sports e.g. bungee jumping, white water rafting, surfing, snow boarding, scuba diving and parachute jumping; gambling; crime; impulsive behaviour; and health risk behaviours e.g. unsafe sex, unsafe driving, binge drinking and use of illicit drugs (‘A review of behavioral and biological correlates of sensation seeking’, Journal of Research in Personality, 38, 2004).

Roberti has high hopes that adverse consequences of sensation seeking traits could be reduced by substituting sensations with low health risks for sensations with high health risks:

‘Early identification of risky behaviors, attitudes, and preferences in young adults, such as engaging in promiscuous sexual activities, reckless drinking habits, use of illicit drugs, gambling, and high-risk sports and replacing those with non-risky options is essential in reducing negative health consequences. Recommending appealing, non-risky forms of sensation seeking to individuals that once engaged in risky behaviors is one way of reducing negative health consequences. The effectiveness of using alternative arousal sources that are non-risky but are equally stimulating has yet to be determined and would be a fruitful line of research’ (p 274).

When I consider this from an economics perspective, it is not entirely clear whether, or to what extent, sensation seekers would view such activities as substitutes. It would be nice to think that an afternoon engaging in an extreme sport would satisfy a sensation seeker’s desire for thrills until the following week – and that the culture associated with all extreme sports would tend to encourage healthy living. It might be possible, however, for a sensation seeker to spend an afternoon engaging in an extreme sport, followed by an evening of illicit drug use and gambling, and then to end the day participating in a sex orgy (although I can’t verify this from personal experience). More research may be required. (Perhaps I should clarify that I am suggesting surveys of the lifestyles of people who engage in various extreme sports.)

Jonathan Roberti draws attention to research suggesting that sensation seekers prefer certain types of friends and tend to surround themselves with others who have similar sensation seeking characteristics. I expect that the behaviour of sensation seekers in this respect would be strongly influenced by their own sense of identity.

How can parents ensure that children with sensation seeking tendencies develop a sense of identity consistent with adopting healthy lifestyles? My previous consideration of this question suggests that the main environmental shaper of personality is a child’s peer group. Parents may not be able to choose their children’s friends for them, but parents do make decisions about where they live and what schools their children attend.

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