Table of Contents

General Contexts

Intrapersonal Communication (Persuasion)

Interpersonal Communication

Small Group Communication

Organizational Communication

Intercultural Communication

Mass Communication

Applied Contexts

Health Communication

Instructional Communication

Honors Capstone Home Page

Last updated February 14, 2001


Click Here to Go Back to Health Context Page

Sensation Seeking

Explanation of Theory:

The sensation seeking theory states that individuals seek activities and experiences that will gratify their need for sensation, and maintains that there are different levels of sensation (high or low) that can be applied.

Theorist: Zuckerman 

Date:  1979

Primary Article:

      Zuckerman, M. (1979).  Sensation seeking:  Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum.

Individual Interpretations:

The Interactional View is also known as the theory of pragmatics because of the dependence on the particular situation at hand. Miscommunication occurs because people are not "speaking the same language." These languages are brought because people have different points of view from which they are speaking. When people's content and relationship component do not match up, miscommunication is likely to occur.

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

 Based on the metatheoretical assumptions, Sensation Seeking is a humanistic theory.  Epistemologically, the theory holds multiple truths as there are different levels of sensation seeking that can be applied to different individuals, and it is also possible that some people are not sensation seekers.  Ontologically, the theory lies in the middle of the
determinism-free will continuum.  Research shows that there may be a biological basis for the need for sensation, so in that regard, one may see the theory as partially deterministic. However, an individual chooses to act upon that urge to satisfy their need for sensation, thus satisfying the free will component of the ontological assumption.  Axiologically, the
theory is value conscious at the least and quite often value laden.  An individual’s values often come into play when deciding whether or not to act upon the urge to satisfy their need for sensation regardless of the level of sensation seeking.


 According to Farrell’s criteria for a useful humanistic theory, Sensation Seeking
qualifies as such.  This theory has analytic consistency as one can see the ideas or grounds for formulating the theory.  Researchers were most likely interested in explaining a behavioral phenomenon, therefore it is easy to understand their line of thinking or
reasoning when developing this theory.  Sensation Seeking also has intuitive credibility as it can be applied to a communicative practice in a practical manner. One can find examples
of sensation seeking in communication interactions among many people, especially teenagers and males.  Finally, the Sensation Seeking theory has heuristic value because it can be applied in many different areas. Although the theory was developed in the world of
communication, it can also be applied in other fields such as psychology or sociology
when explaining why an individual takes risks in their lives such as bungee jumping or promiscuity.

Ideas and Implications:

This theory has many implications for everyday life. Since families often suffer from miscommunication, this thoery is able to explain why such things take palce. The suggestion to reframe problems in order to gain a better understanding of what is going on seems like sound and practical advice.


 Pat and Terry were walking through the woods one hot, summer day.  After hours
of exploring, they come to a cliff which over looks a beautiful pond.  Pat, who has no fears in the world and is a high sensation seeker, suggests that the two take a running jump and have diving contest into the pond.  Terry is extremely afraid of heights and does not find the idea exciting or invigorating at all, and suggests that they walk to the pond and try
to fish. Terry explains that neither of them really know how deep the pond is and jumping off could be very dangerous. Terry is a low sensation seeker and does not need the thrill of jumping off of a ledge to satisfy her need for sensation.  Pat decides to disregard any threat of danger, and jumps from the cliff to take a swim, while Terry hikes down to the pond and enjoys fishing on the bank.

Relevant Research:

      Donohew, L., Lorch, E.P., & Palmgreen, P. (1991). Sensation seeking, marijuana
use, and responses, to prevention messages:  Implications for public health campaigns. Drug and alcohol abuse reviews (pp73-93). Clifton, NJ:  Humana.

      Lorch, E.P., Palmgreen, P., Donohew, L., Helm, D., Baew, S.A., & Dsilva, M.U.
(1994). Program context, sensation seeking, and attention to televised anti-drag public service announcements.  Human Communication Research, 20, 390-412.

      Palmgreen, P., Lorch, E.P., Donohew, L., Harrington, N.G., Dsilva, M.U., &
Helm, D. Reaching at-risk populations in a mass media drag abuse prevention campaign: Sensation seeking as a targeting variable.  Drugs and Society.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.  N/A

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.  N/A

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. N/A

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. N/A

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A