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Psychology | Science | Culture

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Two friends are at an amusement park and decide to take a ride on the Twisted Cyclone roller coaster. Two minutes and forty-four seconds of twists, dives, and jerks later, the ride is over. When they emerge, one is terrified, the other is exhilarated. The one who is terrified is breathing hard, his legs are shaking, and his heart is pounding. He did not have an enjoyable experience. The other looks almost tranquil in her satisfaction and is ready to go again, except this time she wants to ride in the front car. Two people, same situation, totally opposite experiences. Why does this happen? How can two people have such completely divergent responses to the same stimuli?

     Of course, you can say, ‘They are different.’ But how are they different? What makes them so different? These are the kinds of questions that psychologists bump up against all the time. On the one hand, I’m quite aware that people are unique—each of us has our own physiological, psychological and cultural influences and predispositions that drive what we think and what we do. On the other hand, there are patterns to these thoughts and behaviors. Psychologists are always looking for ways to describe, explain, and even predict what people do; it’s in the job description. I’m looking for the patterns in the seemingly unpredictable mélange of human behavior, not only to understand people, but also to help them understand each other and even themselves.

The mind of the extrovert can be hard for the introvert to understand, and harder to pin down, because extroverts have other things to do than wait around while introverts assess them. In this book, psychologist and self-confessed introvert Kenneth Carter looks closely at a mentality that leaves him bewildered—that of the sensation-seeker

I’m that guy who hates roller coasters. They aren’t fun for me. I’ve ridden them many (many) times with friends, so it’s not simply a matter of exposure. Sure, I can tolerate them and I ride when I’m pressed, but it’s not fun. How someone could get off a roller coaster and not only be ready to ride again, but also actually feel happier, even more tranquil after the ride, has baffled me for years. 

     What’s more, I am a person who is relatively staid. I’m a professional academic who spends the vast majority of his time in the library, behind the computer, or in front of students lecturing. My life is ordered. I wake up at the same time and go to sleep at the same time pretty much every day. I don’t seek out new experiences. I crave calmness. 

     Yet, I see people who are almost perpetually and intentionally drawn not only to literal but also to metaphorical roller coasters. From the outside they seem to seek out chaos: students who change their entire course schedule the morning of the first day of classes; clients who propose marriage on the second date; friends who leave wonderful jobs to move to a different city on a whim. 

Kenneth Carter is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, where he teaches advanced courses in clinical psychopharmacology, research methods and personality. Before arriving at Emory in 1994, he served as a senior assistant research scientist in the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a research focus on smoking as a risk marker for suicidal behaviours in adolescents

Take for example my friend Andrew. Andrew has an industrial-sized case of wanderlust. By the time Andrew was 27 he’d moved 13 times (to three different countries), been in nine different relationships, and had six different careers. When I asked him if moving so many times was difficult, he laughed. ‘No, it wasn’t a challenge at all. It was an adventure.’

I’ve met so many people like Andrew in my life that I began to wonder what they had in common. Are there people who are chaos junkies? Is there some psychological model to explain why some people are attracted to drama? 

 

The Founder of Scientific Research on High Sensation-Seeking 

Scientific research on sensation-seeking didn’t begin until the late twentieth century, and it didn’t start in the base camps of Mount Everest or on the cobbled streets of Pamplona or even the racetracks of Talladega. It began in a dark room filled with nothing—literally. Researchers weren’t trying to explain mountain climbing and kayaking, or running from bulls, or race-car driving. They were trying to get to the bottom of mind control. 

Shortly after the Korean War, there were reports that the Chinese government was using ‘brainwashing’ techniques involving sensory deprivation for torture and mind control. Canadian psychologists and the Canadian government were eager to understand these brainwashing techniques, so the government began funding psychological research on sensory deprivation. 

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Among those embarking on this research were Marvin Zuckerman and his lab at McGill University in Montreal. In the typical experiment in Zuckerman’s lab, participants would spend hours in environments where they could hear or see very little. In some cases, people would sit alone in a dark, sound-dampened room with nothing to do. They could leave only to get a lunch of cold sandwiches or to use the bathroom. 

     Just as interest in mind control had inspired research in sensory deprivation, otherworldly concerns also helped shape the methods of this research. Zuckerman’s lab adopted the Ganzfeld Procedure, a method of approximating sensory deprivation, to carry out some of the study. Wolfgang Metzger created this procedure in the 1930s, hoping it would release extrasensory perception abilities hampered by outside stimulation. It casts subjects into a fuzzy nothingness, into what Metzger called unstructured sensations. Cut a ping-pong ball in half and tape the halves over your eyes while listening to static in headphones if you are curious about what it feels like.

     Zuckerman’s curiosity was piqued by how people reacted to the loss of sensation. For the first hour or so, all of the research subjects simply sat in the nothingness. But after that, things changed. Some sat quietly for hours upon hours. Others fidgeted, squirmed, and became bored and anxious, among other things. 

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Strangely, no existing psychological test could reliably predict how subjects would react to sensory deprivation. Zuckerman and his colleagues speculated that some people were high sensation-seekers and some were not. High sensation-seekers, they figured, needed high amounts of stimulation and were irritated by sensory deprivation. Meanwhile, low sensation-seekers weren’t bothered by the lack of stimulation. 

     Yet even though Zuckerman’s team theorized that sensory deprivation irritated high sensation-seekers, exactly this group of people signed up for the experiment in droves. These prospective subjects surprised the researchers not only because they were high sensation-seekers who should have found the study boring and frustrating, but also because they were non-conformists, a group the researchers would never have imagined to be interested in a tedious scientific experiment. These were the early 1960s, where combed slick, closely shorn hair was the norm for men—yet many guys with motorcycle jackets and long hair were eager to volunteer for the study. Why would an experiment in dullness bring the ‘hippies’ out of the woodwork? The researchers were stumped. 

     Apparently, information had circulated to these eager volunteers: the sensory deprived experience had induced hallucinations for some of the early participants. The newcomers were there to seek the sensation of the hallucinations, not for scientific advancement or for financial compensation. 

     Zuckerman realized that sensation-seeking was not only a quest for external stimulation as he originally thought. It seemed as though high sensation-seekers wanted unique experiences, too. He asserted that sensation-seekers are sensitive to their experiences and choose stimulation that maximizes them.

     If you think of sensation-seeking as a continuum, high sensation-seekers are at one end. They are always seeking new experiences, even if (and in some cases because) they come with risks. Low sensation-seekers, on the other hand, may actively avoid new experiences. Most people, as you can imagine, fall somewhere in the middle, seeking out new experiences unless there’s something to lose by doing so. 

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Zuckerman created a sensation-seeking scale to assess how much of a sensation-seeker someone is overall and how they score in each of four subtypes of sensation-seeking. Zuckerman’s sensation-seeking scales have evolved over time from a general scale in the early years to the current, more complex version (known as Form V).

     It’s worth noting that some people have taken issue with Zuckerman’s research. For example, the quiz is in what is called a ‘forced choice format’—this means you must pick between one of two statements that best describes you (‘I like “wild” uninhibited parties’ or ‘I prefer quiet parties with good conversation’). Researchers like Jeff Arnett have suggested this forced choice format doesn’t allow for any shades of gray and that Likert-type formats where you judge each statement based on how well they describe you (i.e., ‘describes me very well’, ‘describes me somewhat’, etc.) would be more effective, but the research says they don’t seem to work any better (statistically) than Zuckerman’s original scale.

     Probably the most valid concern about Zuckerman’s research centres on the confounding factors that are built into the scale depending on how it’s used. For example, research has shown that high sensation-seekers have a higher tendency to try recreational drugs, like marijuana and cocaine. If you’re trying to figure out whether or not high sensation-seeking and drug use correlate, you can’t offer options like ‘I would not like to try any drug which might produce strange and dangerous effects on me’ and ‘I would like to try drugs that produce hallucinations,’ because they ostensibly relate to both variables being tested (high sensation-seeking and drug use) and therefore explain away some or all of the potential correlation. I think this is probably an issue from the standpoint of statistical accuracy, although Zuckerman has rebutted this concern saying that validity in predicting engagement in certain behaviours (like sex, drugs, and others) has been unaffected even when the offending items are removed ...

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