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Sensation Seeking in Texas HPER and Elementary Education College Students
(July 2006)
Deborah J. Buswell, Ph.D.
Stephen F. Austin State University
Gay James, Ph.D.
Texas Woman's University

contact information:
Deborah Buswell, PhD
Assistant Professor
Stephen F. Austin State University
P.O. Box 13015, SFA Station
Nacogdoches, TX  75962
Phone: 936-468-1661
Fax: 936-468-1850

The purpose of this study was to examine students who were attending a mid-size university and majoring in health, physical education, recreation, and elementary education in regard to their sensation seeking behavior interests and preferences. Three hundred thirty-two students completed a written survey consisting of a set of 10 demographic questions and 40 forced choice items from the Sensation Seeking Scale V (Zuckerman, 1994). Females accounted for 57.1% of the population, 69.5% were Caucasian, and 74.6% were between 21-25 years of age. Analysis, completed using a two-way mixed model ANOVA, indicated that males scored significantly higher than females on the total scale score and on the disinhibition and boredom susceptibility subscales but not on the thrill and adventure seeking or experience seeking subscales. All majors scored highest on the thrill and adventure seeking subscale and lowest on the boredom susceptibility subscale. These scores indicate that students make choices that may involve physical danger and high levels of risk and they do so, not because they have nothing better to do but because they want to expand on their experiences. Analysis of specific questions on the instrument related to unhealthy behaviors raises a number of concerns for universities and demonstrates a need to provide alternative experiences for students to meet the needs of sensation seeking in more healthy ways.
Keywords: sensation seeking, college students and risk taking, thrill and adventure seeking

Marvin Zuckerman developed the original sensation seeking scale and first described the model in the 1960s (Zuckerman, 1994). Zuckerman suggested there are sensation-seeking personality traits and that each individual has different ways of seeking sensation and different arousal levels. Sensation seeking was first examined only as an optimal level of cortical arousal. However, research within a psychobiological model did not provide strong support for use of this tool in psychobiology at the time (Zuckerman, 1994). The current model encompasses a much broader spectrum including social behavior, cognition, activity, mood, and psychopathology. "Sensation seeking is a trait defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience" (Zuckerman, 1994, p. 27). Horvath and Zuckerman (1993) indicated that each type of risk may work in isolation (i.e., taking a financial risk) or be combined with others (i.e., taking a physical risk that is also illegal). However, it is important to note that risk may not be the essential factor in the choice of action. Sensation seekers may actually attempt to take steps to minimize the risk or they simply may underestimate the risks involved in the behavior.

Sensation seeking specifically related to the areas of health, wellness, and recreation have included studies pairing sensation seeking with high risk recreation involvement (Malkin & Rabinowitz, 1998; Schrader & Wann, 1999), leisure-time usage and satisfaction (Gordon & Caltabiano, 1997), risk taking (Horvath & Zuckerman, 1993; Whissell & Bigelow, 2003) and sexually transmitted disease control (Arnold, Fletcher & Farrow, 2002: Hernandez & Smith, 1991). Additional studies of college-age students examined sensation seeking in relationship to volunteerism (Thomas, 1989) and achievement (Schroth & McCormack, 2000).
 Malkin and Rabinowitz (1998) reviewed a number of studies that had examined the relationship between high-risk recreational activities (i.e., extreme sports) and levels of sensation seeking. They concluded that high sensation seekers demonstrate more participation in high-risk activities such as scuba diving, rock climbing, kayaking, and skiing. In addition, Malkin and Rabinowitz (1998) also proposed that there may be some cultural and economic differences between high and low sensation seekers. Economic means may preclude individuals of low socioeconomic status from participating in certain culturally appropriate methods of satisfying the sensation seeking drive simply because the cost is too high.

Schrader and Wann (1999) examined numerous variables to determine if high-risk recreation involvement could be predicted in 169 college social science students. Perceived physical self-efficacy, internal versus external locus of control, level of sensation seeking, socioeconomic status, gender, death anxiety, and social complexity were among the variables investigated. Although death anxiety and gender were hypothesized to be the best predictors of high-risk recreation involvement, neither of these variables either alone or in combination was strongly supported. The most highly predictive combination of factors reported in this study was gender, level of sensation seeking, and social complexity, defined as joining and maintaining membership in various groups.

Horvath and Zuckerman (1993) examined sensation seeking as it related to impulsivity, appraisal of risk, and risky behaviors for college students. Impulsivity did not appear to predict taking physical risks related to dangerous sports. However, the results did indicate a predictor between student’s perception of peer risky behaviors and their own risky behaviors. Appraisal of perceived risk for such health related activities as smoking and STDs did not seem to be predictive of risk behaviors. The results indicated that it was the level of sensation seeking, as opposed to the level of risk that dictated the behavior (i.e., high sensation seekers are more likely to engage in high-risk health activities even though they appear to appraise the risk as high). Also, with increased experience and participation in the activity or behavior, high sensation seekers tend to show a progressive decline in the perceived risk and are more inclined to continue to participate in the high-risk activity or behavior than low sensation seekers.

Whissell and Bigelow (2003) examined attitudes towards speeding in relationship to sensation seeking in undergraduate students. They found that higher scores on the speeding attitude scale were correlated significantly with higher scores on sensation seeking. Individuals who scored high on the speeding attitude scale scored high on items such as “I have found out how my car performs at speeds well above the speed limit; After an argument, I might drive faster than I should; Just following the flow of traffic justifies driving at high speeds” (Whissell & Bigelow, 2003, p. 819). This may indicate that sensation seekers may use speeding as a means of sensation seeking. For young drivers with little experience this may create a dangerous situation and should be of great concern within and around college communities.

Hernandez and Smith (1991) examined a number of factors including sexual motivation, condom use, condom use intention, number of pickups, number of partners, and frequency of intercourse. They found that two of the subscales on the sensation seeking scale, boredom susceptibility and disinhibition, where significantly correlated to sexual motivation, number of pickups and number of partners. Disinhibition and experience seeking were significantly correlated with the frequency of intercourse. Neither intention to use condoms nor condom use, were correlated to any of the sensation seeking subscales. They suggested that although motivation, number of pickups, number of partners, and frequency of intercourse may be related to sensation seeking, intention and actual use of condoms may be related to education and the continued focus on the importance of condom use to help prevent STDs such as AIDS. Although Arnold, Fletcher and Farrow (2002) used Kalichman and Rompa’s (1995) sensation seeking scale, they had similar findings when they investigated the use of condoms and the relationship to sensation seeking in college students. Results indicated that individuals with lower sensation seeking scores self-reported condom use as ‘great deal’ and also indicated fewer sexual partners in the previous year than individuals with higher sensation seeking scores.

Further research, related to college age students, examined achievement motivation in combination with the sensation seeking scale and found that the participants who scored highest on the achievement motivation instrument had higher scores on the experience seeking subscale than participants who scored lower on the achievement motivation instrument (Schroth & McCormack, 2000). This result suggested that higher achieving students tend to seek mind-expanding experiences as opposed to physical danger, or uninhibited behaviors and experiences to relieve boredom. Sensation seeking may also impact student participation in volunteering for experiments commonly used for extra credit at many universities and the types of students who participate. Thomas (1989) indicated that high sensation seekers tended to volunteer for experiments that they perceived to be exciting, but not for experiments that they perceived would not be exciting. Thomas suggests that this may create a biased pool of participants in studies in which students volunteer based on a description of the experiment and care should be taken to create a neutral description of experiments.

The purpose of this study was to examine students who were attending a mid-size university and majoring in health, physical education, recreation and elementary education in regard to sensation seeking behavior interests and preferences.

Data were gathered using Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking Scale Version V, which consists of 40 forced choice items (Zuckerman, 1994). Ten demographic questions were added for the purpose of this study. Version V has a reported internal reliability coefficient of .84, and a test-retest reliability of .94 when administered over a three-week period (Rainey & Amunategui, 1992). Construct validity and reliability has been well established (for a review, see Zuckerman, 1994) and has been further supported in a more recent study with a college age sample by Roberti, Storck and Bravata (2003).

Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking Scale has been modified several times since the original scale was developed. The most recent version, Version V, has ten items in each of four subscales. The statements have been formulated as forced choice responses. The four subscales are thrill and adventure seeking (TAS), experience seeking (ES), disinhibition (DIS), and boredom susceptibility (BS). The TAS subscale examines the participants’ appeal to activities of physical danger or risk taking. An example statement from the TAS subscale is to either respond that “I often wish I could be a mountain climber” or “ I can’t understand people who risk their necks climbing mountains.” The experience seeking (ES) subscale assesses desires for new experiences. ES includes the desire for exotic travel or association with unusual friends. An example statement from the ES subscale is to either respond that “I like to explore a strange city or section of town by myself, even it if means getting lost” or “I prefer a guide when I am in a place I don’t know well.” Items in the disinhibition subscale (DIS) examine participants’ desire to exhibit uninhibited/unrestrained behaviors. These include behaviors considered high risk taking such as heavy drinking, drug use, or having a variety of sexual partners. An example statement from the DIS subscale is to either respond that “I like ‘wild’ uninhibited parties” or “I prefer quiet parties with good conversation.” The final subscale, boredom susceptibility (BS), assesses an individual’s dislike of repetitive experiences or predictable experiences. An example statement from the BS subscale is to either respond that “I enjoy spending time in the familiar surroundings of home” or “I get very restless if I have to stay around home for any length of time.” Because of a variable gender and ethnic participant population in this study the strong cross-gender and cross-cultural replicability of the instrument was an important factor in its selection for use (Zuckerman, 1994).

The sensation seeking surveys were administered to twelve separate classes offered in a Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER) department from the summer of 2002 to the spring of 2004. These classes were all required courses in the students’ respective majors of health, physical education, recreation or elementary education. Three hundred and fifty students were invited to complete the survey. The responses were voluntary and anonymous. Students were instructed to answer the items on a scan form and to put no personal identifiers, such as names, student identification numbers or social security numbers, on the scan form. In addition, students were instructed not to complete the survey if they had completed it in another class. All students were instructed to place their survey and scan form in a box with all other surveys. Approximately, 6% of the students in the twelve classes chose to either not complete the survey, completed it incorrectly, or had completed it in another class.


Participants in the study were 332 students at a midsize university in the southwest part of the United States. All participants were taking courses offered by the department of HPER. Males accounted for 42.9% of the participants and 57.1% were females. Additionally, participants indicated their ethnicity as the following: 69.5% Caucasian, 19.4% Hispanic, 6.2% African-American, 1.7% Asian, and 3.2% classified themselves as Other. Approximately 88% of the participants were single/never married and 10.6% were married or living with a life partner. See Table 1 and Table 2 for demographic information regarding majors and ages of participants.
Table !
Table 2


Total scores and subscale scores by gender.  The analysis of data was completed using a two-way mixed model ANOVA by gender. The results of the two-way mixed model ANOVA indicated that on the total sensation seeking score, males (M = 5.32, SD = 2.49) scored significantly higher than females (M = 4.73, SD = 2.68), F(1,328) = 13.41, p < .01. The two-way mixed model ANOVA indicated a significant difference in the four subscales, F(3,984) = 188.46, p < .01 (see Table 3). In addition a significant difference was shown in the interaction between gender and subscale scores, F(3,984) = 6.61, p < .01.

Simple main effects indicated there was a significant difference on two of the subscales scores by gender, F(1,1126) = 26.81, p < .01 (DIS), F(1,1126) = 9.13, p < .01 (BS). Males (M = 5.93, SD = 2.20) scored higher than females (M = 4.64, SD = 2.61) on the DIS subscale. Males (M = 3.36, SD = 1.61) also scored higher than females (M = 2.61, SD = 1.78) on the BS subscale (see Table 3).
Table 3
Total scores and subscale scores by major.  The two-way mixed model ANOVA was also used to examine the data by the following four majors; health, exercise sport science, recreation, and elementary education. Data for thirty-nine participants was removed from the analysis as these participants were in a wide variety of other majors and these groups were too small for analysis. The results of the analysis between majors indicated that on the total sensation seeking score there was a significant difference between majors (See Table 4). The analysis also indicated a significant difference in the four subscale scores, F(3,867) = 158.02, p < .01 (See Table 5). In addition, a significant difference was shown in the interaction between majors and subscale scores, F(9,867) = 2.43, p < .01.

Simple main effects indicated there was a significant difference on two of the subscales scores by majors, F(3,636) = 6.62, p < .01 (DIS), F(3,636) = 5.46, p < .01 (BS). All majors scored lowest on the BS subscales. In addition, elementary education majors scored lower than all other groups on both the total score and all subscales scores (See Tables 4 & 5). Data was not analyzed by ethnicity or age group as the disparity in the size of the groups, and the small size of all but one of the groups did not allow for a meaningful statistical analysis.
Table 4
Table 5
Results on specific questions.  Specific questions on the sensation seeking instrument were also examined to determine the frequency of responses for healthy versus unhealthy behaviors related to alcohol use, other drug use, sexual experiences, or illegal activities. Related to the use of alcohol, 41% of the participants responded that they “feel best after taking a couple of drinks,” 56% responded that they “often like to get high (drinking liquor or smoking marijuana)” and 53% felt that “keeping the drinks full is the key to a good party.” Related to the use of other drugs, 72% of the participants responded that they had “tried marijuana or would like to try marijuana” and 28% responded that they “would like to try some drugs that produce hallucinations.” Related to sexual experiences, 33% of the participants responded that they “enjoy the company of real swingers” (defined on the survey as people who are uninhibited and free about sex), 67% responded that they would “like to date members of the opposite sex who are physically/sexually exciting,” and 56% responded that “a person should have considerable sexual experience before marriage.” Related to unconventional or illegal behaviors, 71% responded that they would “like to have new and exciting experiences and sensations, some of which might be a little frightening, unconventional, or illegal.” It appears that a large percentage of the participants indicated that they practice unhealthy behaviors related to alcohol use, other drug use, sexual experiences, and illegal activities.


Major limitations of this study included the use of intact classes, a single department at one university, self-reported data, and uneven group sizes, which limit the generalizability of the results and the ability to perform meaningful correlations. However, in an effort to compensate for these limitations, responses were voluntary and anonymous and the sample size was adequate to control for differences in both gender and majors.

Examination of the total scores for all participants in this study indicated that with a range of 10.0 to 0.0, the mean for all students indicated that they are neither high sensation seekers or low sensation seekers with the mean falling in the middle of the sensation seeking scale (See Table 3). The total score on the sensation seeking scale for this particular group does not appear to be an indicator of an overwhelming amount of unhealthy or healthy risky behaviors. Previous research has found a link between the sensation seeking trait and participation in high-risk recreational activities such as rock climbing, skiing, and kayaking (Malkin & Rabinowitz, 1998).

In this particular study, although the participants do not appear to be high sensation seekers, an examination of the subscales scores and answers to individual questions may provide an indicator as to the type of risk activities in which this particular group of students may participate and whether, when they participate in risky behaviors, they are unhealthy or healthy. Subscales score results indicate there are differences in sensation seeking related to both gender and major. In previous research, males scored higher on the sensation seeking scale (Hernandez & Smith, 1991; Schrader & Wann, 1999; Schroth, 1991) than females. There have also been differences in subscales scores between males and females (Schroth, 1991; Schroth & McCormack, 2000). Both of these were substantiated by the present study. However, this research is unique in examining sensation seeking in health, exercise sport science, recreation, and elementary education majors. The major findings related to the subscale scores were on the thrill and adventure seeking and boredom susceptibility subscales. All majors scored highest on the thrill and adventure seeking subscale, which seems to indicate that college students in general may make choices that are physically dangerous and involve high levels of risk. In addition, all majors scored lowest on the boredom susceptibility subscale, which seems to be good news in light of the study conducted by Hernandez and Smith (1991) that indicated that boredom susceptibility was significantly correlated to sexual motivation, number of pickups and number of sexual partners. Low scores on boredom susceptibility may indicate a lower incidence of these behaviors, which may in turn help to decrease the probability of contracting STDs for these individuals. These results also seem to indicate that students are making choices to participate in sensation seeking activities, not because they have nothing better to do with their time, but because they are seeking experiences outside their normal predictable routines. Although it seems logical that high scores on thrill and adventure seeking are correlated to low scores on boredom susceptibility this was beyond the scope of the present study but would be of interest to examine in a future study.

Elementary education majors scored lowest on total scores as well as on all subscales scores. An examination of these scores seems to indicate that elementary education majors are more conservative in their approach to sensation seeking. According to their responses these students are more likely to participate in activities that are part of their normal routine and conform to acceptable social standards as opposed to seeking experiences that are out of the ordinary. When they do seek experiences they are most likely to participate in physically challenging or demanding activities such as water and snow skiing, rocking climbing, or surfing as opposed to illegal or socially unacceptable behaviors.

Health majors scored highest on the experience seeking subscale and may seek experiences based on novelty or expanding the number or types of different experiences. According to their responses they select activities that tend to be unusual and may demonstrate what others perceive as a nonconforming lifestyle. For example, they may choose to travel to exotic places and experience various cultures, try illegal substances like marijuana or hallucinogens, and dress in nontraditional ways.

Recreation and exercise sport science majors scored highest on the thrill and adventure seeking subscale and seek activities with a high degree of excitement, danger, or exhilaration. According to their responses they select activities with a high degree of arousal such as scuba diving, rock climbing, high diving, and parachuting. This is certainly supported by the Horvath and Zuckerman (1993) study in that this subscale seems to be most related to participation in sports risk. These participants also scored highest on the disinihibition subscale and may seek experiences that are risky, dangerous to their overall health, or illegal (i.e., heavy drinking, drug use, and having a variety of sexual partners). This may be a cause for concern in that Hernandez and Smith (1991) found that high scores on disinhibition are related to sexual motivation, number of pick-ups, and number of sexual partners thus putting these students at higher risk for contracting STDs. Although it seems logical that high scores on thrill and adventure seeking may be correlated to high scores on disinihibition this was beyond the scope of the present study but would be of interest to examine in a future study.

Examination of specific questions related to unhealthy behaviors raises concerns for both students and faculty members. Sensation seeking may have both positive and negative consequences for the student. When students make choices related to the disinihibition subscale there is a higher possibility that these behaviors have life-altering ramifications. Student sensation seeking related to unhealthy behaviors may result in unintentional injury to themselves or others, loss of personal health and well-being, possible academic failure or expulsion from the university and may even lead to arrest.

Sensation seeking by students may be an issue for faculty members and university administration because of the need to channel unhealthy behaviors into a more positive direction. Previous research indicated that high sensation seekers are more likely to use alcohol than low sensation seekers (Ratliff & Burkhart, 1984; Zuckerman, Bone, Neary, Mangelsdorf, & Brustman, 1972). Zuckerman (2000) also examined the question of generalized risk-taking and found that smoking, drinking, sex, and drugs work in tandem with each other and that reckless driving (assessed using a separate instrument) was correlated with responses to questions regarding drinking. Additionally, Whissell and Bigelow (2003) suggested that speeding may also be a behavior demonstated by high sensation seekers. These issues not only concern faculty because of the impact on individual students but also because of the further reaching implications to the university as a whole (i.e., dropout rate, retention of students at the university, and emotional/social climate).

Health classes mandated in many high schools and in some colleges include instruction on content addressing unhealthy risk taking behaviors, such as use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs, unsafe sex practices, and drinking and driving. As Hernandez and Smith (1991) found however, education may only play a small part in decreasing unhealthy risk behaviors such as the use of condoms or the intention to use condoms. High sensation seeking appears to be correlated to increased number of partners, increased frequency of sexual intercourse, and increased number of pickups, which are all behaviors related to the increased probability of contracting various STDs. Low sensation seekers tend to me more proactive in protecting themselves from STDs by using condoms more frequently, having fewer partners, and having sexual intercourse less frequently. It is possible that students may not be provided with or be aware of alternative sensation seeking options. Therefore, it is critical for university recreation and health classes to combine teaching healthy risk taking behaviors with positive thrill and adventure type activities to channel the need for sensation seeking into healthy, legal and socially acceptable risk behaviors.

The results of this study indicate a propensity for sensation seeking by recreation and exercise sport science majors. Males in all majors scored higher than females on the total sensation seeking scale and in all of the subscales except ES. Sensation seeking experiences sought may involve high personal risk, especially in the areas of partying (i.e., socializing with alcohol), other alcohol use and illegal activities. Education, therefore, should include areas that focus on the differences between healthy and unhealthy risk behaviors; risks that involve abuse of alcohol and other drugs; and activities that place participants at risk for negative consequences. It is essential that college students learn that risk-taking behaviors may have both negative and positive consequences. These consequences may occur in a variety of areas such as social, physical, legal, financial, or any combination of the above. Future studies need to further assess sensation seeking or risk taking behaviors that can be addressed in classes or by other methods of prevention in an effort to reduce unhealthy sensation seeking or risk taking behaviors by health, physical education, recreation, and elementary education majors.

Zuckerman (2000) has suggested that sensation seeking is a personality trait that is a combination of both genetics and experience. Students may be predisposed to seek certain experiences as a result and thus it is essential that education related to healthy versus unhealthy risk behaviors continue to be emphasized in college level health education courses and in the college experience. Because sensation seeking behaviors related to social situations (i.e., drinking, use of drugs, and sexual experiences) were reported by a high percentage of the students in this study, it is suggested that early in the college experience the university environment should be organized to include an emphasis on positive sensation seeking experiences and that the university recreation center be a part of this focus. Positive experiences may include use of university recreation centers to increase the offerings of physical activities that are considered positive thrill and adventure seeking challenges. Gordon and Caltabiano (1997) identified the need to understand that what motivates people to participate in activities is important especially when looking at leisure behaviors which may be developed early in life. For example, activities such as a rock climbing wall or rock climbing excursions, canoeing or rafting, camping, hiking or biking trips may provide socially and culturally acceptable outlets for sensation seeking. The focus of these activities must be on finding new challenging experiences that are considered healthy risk taking experiences and establishing a method for students to meet their sensation seeking needs in a positive manner. It is suggested that universities assess the social, cultural and physical environment relative to providing leisure and recreation sensation seeking opportunities of a positive nature and promote student participation in the development of programming and the planning of facilities which are utilized for leisure and recreation activities, and the development of health and wellness promotion activities.

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