A Lesson in Psychological Discovery

Question: How did you become interested in sensation-seeking?

Marvin Zuckerman: Well, as I say, it came out of a natural course of my research in sensory deprivation which is the opposite of sensation-seeking. But I must admit, perhaps I was – at that time in my life I looked at people – friends who were high sensation seekers and I looked at them once and I kind of – I used them as kind of a prototype when I was designing this trait. But what are the things they do? What do they like? Now since now we have other ways once we had designed it. But you have to have the idea – was a new idea for a trait which no one was really measuring at that time. Okay? So to get my idea, I looked around to what people were doing and the first form of this test we were depending on saying, “Would you like to do this?” Like, would you like to do skydiving? Because we assume most people aren’t doing it, but the mere liking, or wanting, or the thought that they would like to do it is something that characterized a higher sensation seeker.

Whereas a lower sensation seeker would say, “No, that’s crazy. Why would I want to do that? That’s dangerous.” What people might like to do, **** the first items for our thrill and adventure seeking sub scale. Then we asked, “What about one of the other aspects? And we looked at sex, drugs. And we asked questions, would you like to do this, would you like to do that? Or, in the case of sex, what do you like to do? Or what are your attitudes toward it? Are they permissive attitude? So those were the sort of things that we looked at. So, that’s how I got the initial items. We have different kinds of items now that don’t include content, just the need for excitement.

Question: Were you a high sensation seeker at a young age?

Marvin Zuckerman: Well, I would say to be a publishing professor teaching, you can’t be too high because if you’re too high, you’re out doing other things. You’re not doing research and writing. But I would say that I was higher than average – then the average professor. Now recently that became a mote point when they discovered this gene, the Dopamine 4 Receptor Gene. I was in England. By this time I was getting on in age, it was my last sabbatical, but I had the chance – I was in the genetics lab there and I had the chance to have my own DNA examined for the presence of this particular gene, or the form of the gene. So, I did and I found I had the long form of the gene, which is the type associated with sensation-seeking, but as I explained to my colleagues there, my sensation-seeking by the time I was 60, my sensation-seeking was confined to riding the top of the double-decker bus in London because age – you may have the gene for something but it’s expression is affected by other biological factors related to age. Like the rise in MAO with age which reduces sensation-seeking.

Recorded on: October 22, 2009

When Marvin Zuckerman was developing his theory of sensation-seeking, his college friends provided a handy prototype.

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