The Arousal-Seeking Behavioral Theory has been popular in aspects of both psychology and sociology. It was originated by Lindsley and further researched by many other psychologists and sociologists. This theory states that “for a variety of genetic and environmental reasons, some people’s brain functions differently in response to environmental stimuli” (Lee, 1996). According to Lee, every person tries to reach an optimum level of arousal from the environment and too little stimulation causes a person to be bored while too much stimulation causes anxiety. Anxiety would lead to sensation seeking. At the center of this theory lies the fact that sensation seekers are more biologically and environmentally prone to engage in deviant activities and to take illicit drugs. According to research done by Miles (2001), sensation seeking is a great predictor of drug use and abuse, because those who are sensation seekers also tend to be risk takers. According to this theory, obtaining thrills and a demonstration of competence are the main crime motivators, usually with little to no eonomic gain (Katz, 1988). Zuckerman defined sensation seeking as a “term defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience”, so, those who are sensation seekers are more willing to participate in risky behavior and are more impulsive (1994). A twin study performed by Donna Miles, Marianne Van, Den Bree, Anne Gupman, and other researchers showed that while genetic factors had a strong influence in some personality traits, such as risk-taking, environmental and family factors had a great influence on others, such as sexual promiscuity; for marijuana use, environmental and genetic factors have proven to be equally important (2001).
Personality traits such as thrill seeking and impulsivity vs. self control can now be measured by many methods. The most popular method to measure these traits are the CPI (California Psychological Inventory), Zuckerman’s SSS(Sensation Seeking Scales) and the MMPI (Minessota Multiphasic Personality Index). The CPI scale has been found to be very relevant when measuring personality traits such as impulsivity. “[The CPI scale] is a subset of true/false items , agree/disagree items and forced choice items, and it’s designed to measure variation in self-regulation, self-control, and level of impulsivity and self-centeredness. “ People who obtain a high score on the CPI are considered to be aggressive and impulsive, and to have little to no control over their behavior. The CPI scale is usually used because of its long history of application, and because of the diversity of audiences to which the test has been administered to (Wood & Cochran et al., 1995). Zuckerman’s SSS scale has also been very helpful in pointing out sensation seekers. Individuals who score high on the SSS are more likely to be oriented towards body sensations, to be more extraverted, impulsive, antisocial, and less anxious (Newcomb & McGee, 1991).
Impulsivity is one of the most important aspects of the Arousal-Seeking Behavioral Theory, because criminologists believe that impulsivity warrants the most research attention of all psychological factors implicated in juvenile delinquency and crime. Impulsivity refers to the inability or unwillingness of a person to think of the consequences of their behavior before making a decision to act (or having time to make their decision). It is simply a lack of premeditation. A person who is impulsive may lack the ability to correctly process cognitive information (for example, finish a job or paper, easily bored). Impulsivity also plays a huge role in assessing different forms of psychopathology. Many researchers see impulsivity as a major component of psychoticism and anti-social personality disorders (Lynam & Miller, 2004).
Some researchers argue that even though sensation seeking is caused by both genetic and environmental factors, the main cause for such behavior are low levels of platelet monoamine oxidase (MAO) activity in the brain. Brain chemistry and brain structure play an important role, it is argued that everybody’s brain is different and that some people’s brains have more nerve cells and alterations than others (Katz, 1988). According to research done on a male criminal population in Sweden, many criminal offenders who are have committed dangerous and violent crimes and are diagnosed as psychopaths, have low levels of platelet MAO activity in their brain. There are two types of the enzyme MAO; MAO-A is present in the human brain and in the blood platelets while MAO-B is only present in blood platelets. Low MAO activity, usually combined with personality traits such as impulsiveness, monotony avoidance and sensation seeking tend to highly correlate with criminal behavior and it can cause a “rehabilitated” person to relapse and reoffend after they are released from prison. Researchers also argue that both high and low platelet monoamine oxidase activity can cause different forms of deviance; people with a high amount of MAO activity can be categorized as anxiety-related disordered and having schizoid personality traits(Longato-Stadler, af Klinteberg et al., 2002). In their research, Longato-Stadler et al. state that the levels of MAO activity remain stable throughout an individual’s lifetime, regardless of their present clinical or psychological states. More recently, they have been able to test this biological part of the theory due to advances in technology; devices like the EEG (Electroencephalograph) have been successful at measuring different arousal levels in parts of the brain.
While some researchers believe that sensation seeking and impulsive behavior are more biological than environmental, others believe that these two personality traits are more likely to be congruent with learning and cognitive processes.(Wood & Cochran, 1995). Wood and Cochran proposed that people who tend to engage in substance use and deviant/delinquent behavior, do so because of internal motivations and societal pressures. They also propose that delinquent behavior is produced in the seeking of pleasure and immediate gratification, usually with no regards for future consequences or punishments. They believe that such delinquent behavior as vandalizing, drug use, joyriding, arson, and fighting stem from having “low self control” rather than anything else because those behaviors and forms of delinquency do not really provide an economic or material gain for the offender. There are, however, many non-economic reinforcements that reward delinquent behavior, such as the thrill and excitement and respect from peers (who are probably also delinquent)(1995). These researchers also argue that people who are sensation seekers and thrill seekers can also have a positive societal outcome, such as creativity and are usually adventurous. Those people may choose more socially approved forms of stimulation such as traveling, skydiving and bungee jumping to receive the same type of immediate gratification as delinquents do. Arguments about environment vs. biology also arise when trying to account for gratuitous and repetitive behavior (that is, any seeking of stimulation beyond the initial deviance) and that is where the Learning Theory is introduced to join the Arousal Theory; behaviors may continue due to the pleasurable sensations they receive each time a task is performed. For example, a person who is taking drugs might initially participate for the thrill and excitement of the behavior, but they will continue the behavior because of the instant pleasure that they receive due to the pharmacological effects of the drug they are taking. Researchers in this experiment have concluded that even though thrill seeking and impulsivity are likely to cause the initial act of deviance, immediate gratification and pleasurable sensations work to maintain and reinforce habitual delinquency Wood, Cochran et al, 1995).
Even though the arousal theory can explain different types of deviant behavior, it appears to best explain drug, alcohol or tobacco use. Researchers have found strong correlations with personality traits that include sensation seeking, impulsiveness and extraversion to drug abuse. This theory can distinguish those people who seek immediate gratification and the physiological stimulation that comes with consuming drugs. Wood, Cochran et al. researched the prevalence of drug abuse amongst high school students and the correlation drug abuse had with sensation seeking personality types. Their results show that among those respondents, most had admitted to the use of drugs. The main category of rationalization was that the participants did it for the thrills, excitement, fun or simply to get away with it. The rationalizations that followed this main reason, were the following three categories 2) social/peer pressure, 3)”it felt good”, and 4) other (1995). Family and twin studies show that drug use is influenced equally by both genetic influences and environmental influences (such as being raised by the same parents, living in the same neighborhood and sharing the same friends). The result of their research was as follows: 31% of the variance for marijuana use was explained by genetic factors, 47% by familial factors, and 22% was explained by non-familial environmental factors (Miles et. al, 2001). Further research done by Newcomb and McGee shows that those subjects who score high in sensation-seeking as teenagers and adolescents continue to use illicit drugs into early adulthood (1991)
Gender differences in sensation seeking are apparent. According to a study performed by Newcomb and McGee, male subjects were more likely than female subjects to exhibit all different types of delinquent and deviant behavior that can be attested by the Arousal Theory. These researchers conducted a longitudinal study of both male and female subjects and their rates of deviance at three different stages of development; after the ninth year of research, it was apparent that male subjects had higher scores in the thrill and adventure seeking, and the disinhibition subscales of the SSS, while women had a higher scores in the experience seeking subscale of the SSS.
Like every other theory, the Arousal Theory of crime has its strengths and its weaknesses. Some of the strengths of this theory are the fact that it can help predict delinquency in subjects who score high on sensation seeking and impulsiveness and the fact that it can attest and help explain drug use and abuse. Some of the main weaknesses of this theory are: that there has been no direct and specific testing of the Arousal theory, and that the relationship between crime and thrills is basically unknown; the theory cannot explain why some people choose deviant and delinquent forms of sensation seeking and some choose more culturally accepted and approved forms of stimulation(Wood and Cochran, 1995); third and last, this theory has not really explored thrill seeking behavior and impulsiveness-related deviance into adulthood and old age, and more research needs to be done with older participants (Newcomb & McGee, 1991).
- Katz, J. (1988). Seduction of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil. New york: Basic Books.
- Lee, E. (1996). Arousal Theory and the Religiosity-Criminality Relationship. Contemporary Criminology Theory , 65-84.
- Longato-Stadler, E., af Klinteberg, B., Garpenstrand, H., Oreland, L., Hallman, J. (2002). Personality Traits and Platelet Monoamine Oxidase Activity in a Swedish Male Criminal Population. Journal of Neuropsychobiology , 46 (4), 202-208.
- Lynam, D.R., Miller, J. D. (2004). Personality Pathways to Impulsive Behavior and Their Relations to Deviance: Results from Three Samples. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 20 (4), 319-341.
- Miles, D. R., Van Den Bree, M. B., Gupman, A. E., Newlin, D. B., Glantz, M. D., Pickens, R. W. (2001). A twin study on sensation seeking, risk taking behavior and marijuana use. Drug and Alcohol Dependence , 62 (1), 57-68.
- Newcomb, M. D., McGee, L. (1991). Influence of Sensation Seeking on General Deviance and Specific Problem Behaviors From Adolescence to Young Adulthood. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology , 61 (4), 614-628.
- Wood, P. B., Cochran, J. K., Pfefferbaum, B., Arneklev, B. J. (1995). Sensation Seeking and Delinquent Substance Abuse: An Extension of Learning Theory. Journal of Drug Issues , 25 (1), 173-193.
- Zuckerman, M. Hello (1994). Behavioral Expressions and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.