The big thrill
ARE you one of those people who believes that living on the edge is the only way to live? If so, you could be addicted to risk - or a ‘sensation-seeker’, as they are labelled by Professor Marvin Zuckerman. He has been studying the characteristic for more than 30 years, and describes sufferers as those who crave "varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences".
Easily bored by routine and predictability, sensation-seekers are addicted to the rush they get from intense stimulation. How this risk-taking manifests itself will depend on personal circumstances - those who can’t afford to indulge in extreme sports may get their thrills through drugs, gambling, vandalism or promiscuous sex. Whatever the experience, sensation-seekers are willing to take all kinds of risks - physical, social and financial - for it.
Sensation-seekers tend to be male, and the greatest risk-takers are in their late teens and early 20s. It’s no coincidence that this is when levels of testosterone are at their highest. Testosterone is linked with ‘disinhibition’ a type of sensation seeking associated with anti-social behaviour.
If sensation-seekers end up in dull jobs they may cope by leaving or by turning to alcohol or other drugs. Sensation-seekers have been shown to be more inclined to have alcohol problems: research shows that sensation-seeking is one of two personality traits that lead to alcoholism. Drugs are an easy way to stimulate the brain, and the drug subculture is addictive, too. Zuckerman says the step from drugs like tobacco and alcohol to illegal ones is one taken only by the higher sensation-seekers.
Parents who display risk-taking behaviour affect how their children live. A study by Southwest Texas State University found that teenagers are more likely to have under-age sex if their parents indulge in risky behaviour. Researchers found that teenagers were more likely to have had sex before the age of 16 if their parents smoked and drank heavily. Boys were likely to have sex before they left school if their parents drove without wearing a seatbelt. There was also a link between parents who smoked and drank and children becoming involved with drugs and the police.
What makes some people risk-takers? The simple answer is that they’re born that way. Sensation-seeking traits have been recognised in young babies. In one US experiment, babies were exposed to blasts of white noise and their heart rates measured. While some showed the typical fight-or-flight response with a fast heart rate, others not only sought out the noise and seemed to enjoy it, but their heart rates actually slowed.
Any sensation-seeking traits become more pronounced as a child grows. They will be the children who choose the loudest toys, who run rather than walk and shout instead of talking. They may show some impulsive or aggressive behaviour, too. And, as they look for more stimulation, they tend to take risks that alarm their parents: they chat to strangers, they’re physically fearless, they dash across roads and climb out of reach.
The good news about such children is that they tend to be brighter. Children with high sensation-seeking tendencies at age three scored 12 points higher on total IQ at age 11, compared with low stimulation-seekers - regardless of their parents’ education or occupation.
What should you do with sensation-seeking tots? You can’t turn them into children who play safe, but you can channel their behaviour into healthier options, say experts. Give them a skateboard or a pogo stick, provide them with a helmet and protective padding and stand back. Give them a healthy outlet for their desire for new experiences.
Warnings have little effect anyway, on any age. Despite the fact 13,000 people in Scotland will die of smoking-related diseases this year, a fifth of Scotland’s 15-year-olds are regular smokers. Sex education and contraception is available, but Scotland has one of the worst records in Europe for teen pregnancies. Well-publicised teen drug deaths and anti-drug campaigns haven’t stopped half of Scotland’s 16-year-olds trying illegal drugs. A survey by the Social Issues Research Centre shows health scares and warnings can bring about the ‘forbidden fruit effect’, where people deliberately defy authoritarian health warnings and do the opposite. This response is particularly common among rebellious teenagers, and is probably why warnings about the dangers of tobacco, drugs and alcohol seem to have little effect on them.
As Professor Zuckerman says, "My work has shown that people have a basic need for excitement - and, one way or another, they will fulfil it."
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