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Legendary rock climber Alex Honnold recently completed the first free-solo climb of 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National park, scaling the cliff without ropes or safety devices in less than four hours on June 3.
It’s a climb that many are calling the most difficult and dangerous free solo ever. Honnold almost certainly fits into a group of people that are defined as high – or in Honnold’s case, “super” – sensation seekers, who frequently seek out extreme and risky experiences, according to Jane Joseph, a Professor in the Department of Neurosciences at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Most high sensation seekers aren’t as extreme as Honnold, who also has aspects of his personality that may help him mitigate risk, but sensation-seeking is still a fairly common personality trait. Many people are driven to do things that excite them, no matter how risky or terrifying those activities might seem to others.
If you heard about a chance to ski down a steep backcountry slope, would you jump on that opportunity? Does wandering through an unknown city where you don’t speak the language sound fun? Do you get restless or bored doing the same thing day after day? Does watching video of someone like Honnold climb make you feel thrilled?
Then you may score highly on measures of a personality trait that psychologists call “sensation-seeking.”
“It’s an overall behavior tendency to really seek out rewarding experiences despite the risk involved,” Joseph tells Business Insider.
In other words, she says it’s not about the risk. It’s about the reward. But the desire for that rewarding sensation overpowers concerns about risk, according to Joseph.
Here are 17 of the ways that behavioral tendency is expressed and things that sensation-seekers have in common.
Everyone falls somewhere on the sensation-seeking spectrum, but some people are more likely to ignore risks and instead seek rewards than others, to the point they may seem attracted to risk.
There are four subcategories to sensation seeking: experience seeking (wanting new sensory or mental experiences), thrill and adventure seeking, susceptibility to boredom, and disinhibition (enjoying things like “wild parties”).
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Not all sensation-seeking activities are risky (and not everyone who takes risks does so because of this behavior trait).
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Younger people are more likely to score highly on a sensation seeking-scale than older people.
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And men generally report higher levels of sensation-seeking than women.
We don’t know exactly how common sensation-seeking is, but Joseph says it’s pretty easy to find people with high levels of this trait on college campuses.
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Psychologists like Joseph study this behavior because it’s one of the stronger predictors we have of drug and alcohol abuse.
That may be especially the case when sensation-seeking is combined with “negative urgency,” a trait that causes people to do impulsive things in response to negative sensations.
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There are genetic components to sensation-seeking.
Brain scans of people who score very highly on this trait tend to show reduced responses to some stimuli, which may explain why these individuals are driven to particularly intense activities.
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Sensation-seekers tend to enjoy adventure travel and extreme sports.
Source: Pizam et al.
They also tend to be less drawn to conventional religious belief.
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And they are more likely to volunteer for experiences like drug research, hypnosis, or sensory deprivation.
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People with strong scores in this trait tend to choose jobs with flexibility, change, and risk, including jobs that place themselves in danger.
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Entrepreneurs tend to score highly on this behavior.
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Joseph thinks it’s possible that high scores on personality traits like conscientiousness may help some high sensation seekers like Honnold regulate the degree of risk they expose themselves to.
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Joseph hopes that one day, research might show ways to channel this personality trait in people at risk for substance abuse away from those risks and towards other rewarding activities.
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