Sensation-seeking is characterized by researchers as a basic human need and as a component of human personality. The need for sensation runs along a continuum, wherein some individuals have a high need for sensation, whereas others have a low need for sensation. An individual who has a high need for sensation seeks sensation in the form of novelty, complexity, or physical stimulation from the environment (Zuckerman, 1979, 1988). Some researchers argue that sensation-seeking includes the willingness to actually take risks, whereas others argue that the willingness to take risks is a separate but related construct (e.g., Arnett, 1994).
The concept of sensation-seeking primarily has been studied in the domains of clinical psychology, personality psychology, health psychology, and communications. From an evolutionary perspective, attention to novel stimuli in the environment was necessary for human survival. Specifically, the detection of new stimuli alerted humans to potential dangers (Franklin, Donohew, Dhoundiyal, & Cook, 1988). For example, an awareness of new sounds in the environment could alert an individual to the approach of a potential predator. Most researchers in the early 2000s view sensation-seeking as an important personality trait of humans, albeit not one that is necessary for survival. The fact that sensationseeking is viewed as a personality variable is important because personality variables are often not easily malleable; thus an individual who expresses a high need for sensation is unlikely to change much over time.
Research from the field of communications generally indicates that individuals with a high need for sensation are more likely to attune to and pay attention to messages (i.e., communications from teachers, messages from television commercials, etc.), when such messages or communications are presented in ways that catch and hold the attention of the individual.
Much of the research on sensation-seeking that is relevant to education and to educational psychology emanates from the field of health communications. In addition, much of this work has been applied research, often in school settings, and often with adolescent populations. Specifically, communication researchers have found that individuals pay attention to messages (e.g., media messages such as radio or television advertisements) based on (a) the individuals' need for sensation and (b) the level of sensation or stimulation that is provided by a given message. A media message that provides high levels of sensation is typically loud, colorful, and filled with motion and action. Intervention studies have found that when the sensation-value of a message is increased (i.e., it is made to be more stimulating by making it loud, including more colors and motion, etc.), the message is more attractive to individuals with a high need for sensation and thus has more effect on individuals' subsequent attitudes and behaviors (Donohew, Lorch, & Palmgreen, 1998).
Individuals who have high sensation needs typically engage in certain predictable behaviors. Most notably, the research indicates that individuals who exhibit a high need for sensation often are more likely to engage in risky or dangerous behaviors, such as abusing substances and having unprotected sexual intercourse (Baer, 2002; Donohew, Zimmerman, Novak, Feist-Price, & Cupp, 2000). However, research also indicates that high-sensation seekers exhibit other diverse characteristics. For example, one study found that these individuals report greater use of the Internet than do individuals with lower reported levels of sensation-seeking (Lin & Tsai, 2002).
Research indicates that sensation-seeking rises markedly during early adolescence (Donohew et al., 1994). For many adolescents, this increase coincides with the transition from elementary school into middle school. Thus although students with high needs for sensation are present in elementary, middle, and high schools, these students may be particularly prevalent in middle school settings.
Students with high need for sensation are likely to display certain predictable characteristics. First, these students may engage in risky activities in school, such as running in the hallway, jumping off desks, throwing food in the cafeteria, or more serious activities such as using illicit substances or getting into physical fights. Second, these students may be particularly attracted to stimulating experiences in school; such students may want to listen to loud music or to look at highly visually stimulating materials (e.g., colorful books with many bright pictures). Third, these students are likely to get bored easily; they may not fare well in classrooms in which they are required to sit for long periods of time and listen to lectures.
Nevertheless, these students still pay attention to tasks, activities, and media messages that are low in sensation-value, if the topic is particularly salient to them. For example, individuals may attend to a seemingly boring documentary on cancer research, if they have close relatives or friends who is suffering from the disease; they may attend to a lecture on the stock market if they have just received the gift of a larger sum of money.
Scholars who study sensation-seeking have examined in particular how media (e.g., television programs or commercials) and general communication in the classroom (e.g., the ways that teachers communicate information to students) affect learning. Students with a high sensation needs benefit from instructional practices that meet those needs. It certainly is not possible to meet the needs of these students at all times, but some lessons can be altered to better hold their attention. Clear suggestions for educators emerge from this literature.
First, these students are more academically engaged in classrooms in which novel, unpredictable activities occur. These students get bored easily in monotonous settings in which activities are repeated daily. Thus, these students benefit from changes in daily routines and the presentation of new instructional materials from time to time (e.g., the use of new texts, the introduction of novel activities, the use of videos and the Internet, holding class outside on a nice day).
Second, educators can adapt curricular materials and classroom activities to make them more appealing to students who have high sensation needs. Whereas these adaptations benefit the high sensation-seeking students, they also may be interesting and novel for students who do not have such high needs. Researchers have identified specific ways in which curricula can be adapted for students with high sensation needs. These adaptations include: (a) the use of dramatic role-playing activities (including the videotaping of such activities), (b) the incorporation of videos and music into traditional lessons, (c) the inclusion of outside speakers with real-world experiences, and (d) the opportunity for students to facilitate conversations and activities in the classrooms (Anderman, Noar, Zimmerman, & Donohew, 2004).
Donohew and his colleagues have identified the characteristics of academic tasks and media messages that are likely to be attractive to adolescents with a high sensation needs (Donohew et al., 1998). These include: (a) tasks that are novel or unusual, (b) tasks that are complex, (c) tasks that provide auditory and visual stimulation, (d) tasks that are unconventional, (e) tasks that are fast-paced, (f) tasks that are complex or ambiguous, and (g) tasks that are suspenseful.
Third, educators need to be aware that students with high sensation needs may also experience problems with behavior in the classroom. These students are more likely to get out of their seats, to talk to their neighbors, and to seek attention from the teacher. Thus targeting students with high needs for sensation early on and setting up classroom contexts to provide for these students' needs may alleviate some potential behavioral problems in the classroom.
Finally, although most of the research has focused on students who exhibit high needs for sensation, educators must be aware of students who have a low need for sensation as well. Although research suggests that tasks that are low in sensation value appeal to students with a low need for sensation (Zuckerman, 1988), it is incorrect to assume that all academic tasks or media messages that are low in sensation-value will always be attractive to these individuals. Donohew and others suggest that these messages may simply be boring and ineffective for all learners. However, educators also must be aware that students with low needs for sensation may find tasks that are high in sensation value particularly over-stimulating.
See also:Impulsive Decision-Making
Anderman, E. M., Noar, S., Zimmerman, R. S., & Donohew, L. (2004). The need for sensation as a prerequisite for motivation to engage in academic tasks. In M. L. Maehr & P. Service-Learning R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement: Motivating students, improving schools: The legacy of Carol Midgley (Vol. 13). Greenwich: JAI Press.
Arnett, J. (1994). Sensation seeking: A new conceptualization and a new scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 16, 289–296.
Baer, J. S. (2002). Understanding individual variation in college drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 14, 40–53.
Donohew, L., Lorch, E. P., & Palmgreen, P. (1998). Applications of a theoretical model of information exposure to health interventions. Human Communication Research, 24, 454–468.
Donohew, L. D., Zimmerman, R. S., Novak, S. P., Feist-Price, S., & Cupp, P. (2000). Sensation-seeking, impulsive decision making, and risky sex: Implications of individual differences for risk-taking and design of interventions. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 28, 1079–1091.
Franklin, J., Donohew, L., Dhoundiyal, V., & Cook, P. L. (1988). Attention and our ancient past: The scaly thumb of the reptile. American Behavioral Scientist, 31, 312–326.
Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking: Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
Zuckerman, M. (1988). Behavior and biology: Research on sensation-seeking and reactions to media. In L. Donohew, H. Spher, & T. Higgins (Eds.), Communication, social cognition, and affect (pp. 173–194). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
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