Pitfalls of Psychology #1: Zuckerman’s Sensation-Seeking Theory

The Sensation-Seeking Theory was one of the topics that bothered my mind from the moment it was first introduced until its discussion was closed.  This contemporary theory of personality is clear evidence of how much people have changed in recent years, and how we, in general, have unavoidably shifted our needs to develop the same coloring as the highs and thrills of the modern culture we have appropriated for ourselves.

Flunking the Test

Before the discussion started we were asked to answer a test known as the Sensation-Seeking Scale developed by Dr. Marvin Zuckerman, proponent of one of the highly noted modern psychological theories known as the Sensation-Seeking Theory of Personality.  This test was intended to measure and assess individual preferences in terms of sensory stimulation.  In a nutshell, it builds on the premise that some people prefer a higher level of sensory stimulation than others, and require more than the usual thrill and excitement that the average person is accustomed to, in order to actually enjoy the experience.  The test results were laid out in a scale of 1 through 14, and were interpreted as follows:

1-3: Very low in sensation seeking
4-5: Low
6-9: Average
10-11: High
12-14: Very High

According to Dr. Zuckerman, in order to reach their Optimal Level of Arousal, certain individuals require and therefore seek out activities that greatly stimulate the senses, otherwise they will find the experience unpleasant.

I scored 2.

Wasn’t that a shock, that there were only two of us (myself and one more) in a class of around 15 students who scored Very Low.  Everyone else laughed in disbelief, and were probably thinking — because the girl seated beside me actually told me so jokingly — that we were probably very boring people.  Moreover, the student assigned to report on the subject frequently implied that when men and women go looking for their lifetime partners, they should see to it that they “both better not be very low in sensation seeking” or else they’d have to live with twice the boredom.

Interestingly, there were questions in the test that I would have answered differently if I were made to take it when I was a teenager. For instance, this one:

a.  A good painting should shock or jolt the senses.
b.  A good painting should give one a feeling of peace and security.

My teenage self would have answered A, but my current self now encircled B.  I don’t know, maybe it’s just because it gives me peace and inner joy to find God in the things I like to behold with my eyes (and with the rest of my senses, for that matter), and the second choice sounded more like one that would allow me that pleasure.  There’s nothing wrong with the first one, definitely none. But we do change as we grow older, and much of that depends on the circumstances we are made to face.


Although most of the questions were mere dichotomies  intended to cause a person to consider one of two choices purely based on individual preference with no moral connotation whatsoever, I would like now to address a few that I am rather skeptical about:

a. I would not like to be hypnotized.
b. I would like to have the experience of being hypnotized.

Now, I’d be lying if I’d say there was never a time that I was intrigued by the idea of hypnotism.  But Scripture is clear regarding the matter: We are to yield ourselves — and that includes our minds — to God, and never to a hypnotist (Romans 6:12-13).  In an altered state of consciousness, like the one that is induced by hypnosis, the mind becomes very susceptible to external influence.  A direct way of saying this would be that a person who allows himself to be hypnotized is putting himself at risk for demon possession (1 Peter 5:8).  And the list goes on.

Another question goes like this:

a. I prefer people who are emotionally expressive even if they are a bit unstable.
b. I prefer people who are calm and even-tempered.

Again, it is a fact of life that different people have different personalities and quirks.  But the question is, what exactly does the Bible say about how we should act and behave?  To answer that question, the Bible tells us not to be quick-tempered (Proverbs 14:29) nor be easily driven by our emotions, however intense they may become.  It also likens the tongue to a fire, a world of iniquity (James 3:2-12), and a fool’s own destruction (Proverbs 18:7).  In addition, Scripture explicitly tells us to be even-tempered (Colossians 3:13). Those who pick Option A in the question above might defend themselves, saying that everyone should be able to exercise freedom of speech and expression, but it is not a good freedom that neglects destruction that inevitably follows an untamed tongue.

One more question:

a. In a good sexual relationship, people never get bored with each other.
b. It’s normal to get bored after a time with the same sexual partner.

Those who’ve read even just a small fraction of the Bible would know that God is tremendously serious about sexual sin.  Sexual sin is an outward manifestation of spiritual corruption (Numbers 25:1-3, Exodus 34:15, Hosea 4:14).  Sexual immorality is the fruit of a sinful nature (Galatians 5:19).  It is a very tricky game, how society plays with what’s “normal” and calls it “moral” and “acceptable.”  Just because everyone else is practicing casual sex, premarital sex, one-night stands, and whatever people call it, doesn’t mean it’s alright to do it (Romans 12:2).  Sexual pleasure outside of marriage is greatly abhorrent to the Lord (Proverbs 5).

The Bottom Line

I do not mean to say that Zuckerman’s Sensation-Seeking Theory is immoral and unbibilical and must be trashed altogether.  It does present some very important and very true insights on what causes people to go rock climbing, skydiving, bungee jumping, and engage in extreme sports.  I also am not saying that such things are sinful — they are not.  However, the real question is this:

What exactly is that thing that you seek to give you pleasure?
Is it sensual highs?  Adventures that get your heart rate beating 10 times as fast?  Things that intoxicate your senses?

Or is it matters of the spirit? Christ’s death on the cross so man could be with God for eternity?  Grace that was freely given through Jesus despite human sinfulness?
Would you rather scream as you jump into a thousand feet of water? Or lie silently in a hammock by the beach and revel in the greatness and the glory of God?

On Flunking

I’m not usually the type of person that rejoices over — or is even okay about — not acing a test, but this is one examination I’d very much like to flunk and be ever so proud of it.  The most exciting experience of all is to share in the faithfulness and mercy of God and to bask in His love all the days of your life.  And I feel for those who think that they can only truly enjoy life if they satisfy the desires of the flesh, and settle for a much lesser adventure.

More from this Series:

Pitfalls of Psychology #1: Zuckerman’s Sensation-Seeking Theory

Pitfalls of Psychology #2: Perceived Self-Efficacy

Pitfalls of Psychology #3: Counseling and Giving Advice


2 Replies to “Pitfalls of Psychology #1: Zuckerman’s Sensation-Seeking Theory”

  1. Well you didn’t say it so I will. Zuckerman’s theory is unbiblical, and I hope people are not basing their lives off of it and throwing away good relationships due to “low sensations” or whatever. It is a myth. No one an even live at that level of emotional craziness for a long time……
    I will continue to yield to God as you so rightly stated 🙂

    1. Yup, that is right. Thanks for dropping by!

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