Friends, porn, and punk: sensation seeking in personal relationships, Internet activities, and music preference among college students
Robert S. Weisskirch
Individuals may differ radically from one another in their need for excitement. These differences in levels of desired stimulation or arousal involve a personality trait known as sensation seeking. Zuckerman (1994) has defined sensation seeking as “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” (p. 27). Sensation seeking includes risk-taking, which typically satisfies the high sensation seeking individual’s desire for novel and intense experiences (Arnett, 1996; Jessor, 1992). For example, to the high sensation seeker, substance use leads to novel mind states, and skydiving renders intense arousal. Sensation seeking generally peaks in adolescence and diminishes in adulthood (Arnett, 1992; Zuckerman, 1994).
This personality trait manifests itself in a variety of risky behaviors. Risk appraisal is lower for the high sensation seeker, even if the individual has had no previous experience with a potentially detrimental activity (Horvath & Zuckerman, 1993; Zuckerman, 1979, as cited in Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000). A high sensation seeker might choose to use alcohol or marijuana despite possible addiction, overdose, and legal, social, and school-related problems (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000). High sensation seekers engage in more risky sexual behaviors, characterized by a greater number of sexual partners and less frequent use of condoms (Zuckerman, 1994). Sensation seeking relates to both extraversion, specifically impulsivity and sociability, and psychoticism, as illustrated by hypomanic tendencies in high sensation seekers and phobic tendencies and schizophrenia in low sensation seekers (Zuckerman, 1994). The degree to which risky behaviors are exhibited depends on the interaction of environmental factors, particularly socialization, and predisposing genetic factors (Arnett, 1992).
Social context influences participation in risky behaviors (Comeau, Stewart, & Loba, 2001). Arnett (1992) has noted that adolescents are attracted to friends with similar levels of sensation seeking. In these friendships, high sensation seekers can reaffirm their negative worldviews with one another (Breivik, 1996). Because risky behaviors are hardly ever committed alone, participation strengthens camaraderie and reinforces friendships (Arnett, 1992). When family or community does not tolerate a particular risky behavior, friends serve as antisocialization partners, supporting the behavior (Arnett, 1992).
Self-disclosure is one of the most important components of intimacy in personal relationships (Franken, Gibson, & Mohan, 1990). High sensation seekers participate in more self-disclosure in casual and close friendships than low sensation seekers (Zuckerman, 1994). Low sensation seekers might be expected to disclose to fewer people in order to fulfill their need for intimacy, while high sensation seekers are expected to have more friends, especially casual friends (Franken, Gibson, & Mohan, 1990). Thus, sensation seeking affects the choice of friends and the level of intimacy within the friendship group.
Arnett (1995) has asserted that adolescents also use media as a means of socialization, particularly in regard to sensation seeking. Further, high sensation seekers use media to provide the stimulation that they desire. For example, Perse (1996) has reported that high sensation seekers watch action/adventure television shows more than other genres.
The socializing potential of the Internet, a relatively new form of media, is enormous. With its expanding connectivity and interactivity, the Internet can increasingly shape development during adolescence, a time of greater sensation seeking. The Internet provides opportunities for high arousal and stimulation, such as chat rooms, music, gambling, interactive video games, and streaming video (even real-time sexual shows). In their study of college students’ emotional arousal when accessing sexually explicit material on-line, Goodson, McCormick, and Evans (2000) support the notion that the Internet can provide a venue for sensation seeking. Further, Lin and Tsai (2002) found that Taiwanese adolescents who were Internet dependent (i.e., addicted) had higher levels of sensation seeking and disinhibition than those who were not Internet dependent.
Music also socializes adolescents and is related to sensation seeking. According to Zuckerman (1994), high sensation seekers prefer music that is “intense, complex, novel, and dissonant.” Most research examining sensation seeking and music preference has focused on the influence of rock and/or heavy metal music on arousal levels or subsequent behavior (Arnett, 1991; Litle & Zuckerman, 1986; McNamara & Ballard, 1999; Roberts, Dimsdale, East, & Friedman, 1998). Litle and Zuckerman (1986) found that preference for rock music was positively related to sensation seeking, while preference for slower music was negatively related to sensation seeking. Because rock music often is played loudly and contains sounds that are “dissonant with complex rhythms and harmony,” it is attractive to the high sensation seeker (Litle & Zuckerman, 1986, p. 576). In fact, high sensation seekers prefer rock and heavy metal because of the arousing quality of the music (Arnett, 1991, 1996; Litle & Zuckerman, 1986; McNamara & Ballard, 1999).
Strong emotional responses to music are associated with an increase in risky behaviors (Roberts et al., 1998). Past studies have focused on rock and heavy metal music preference (or have combined the two into one category) for purposes of assessing sensation seeking and risky behavior (Roberts et al., 1998). Currently, rock and heavy metal are not as extreme as they once were (Flick, 1999), and other genres (such as the resurgence of punk) may now attract high sensation seekers.
In the present study, we examined the relationship between sensation seeking and personal relationships. High sensation seekers were expected have a larger pool of casual and close friends in order to meet the need for arousal, stimulation, and novelty. We were also interested in relationships between sensation seeking and Internet activities. In addition, we investigated whether sensation seeking continues to be associated with heavy metal and rock music or has shifted to a different genre.
One hundred thirty-eight students (75 females, 62 males, 1 did not state) from a small, suburban California state university participated in this study; 4.4% were African American, 2.2% Asian American, 54.0% Caucasian, 30.1% Hispanic, 1.5% Native American and 7.4% multiracial. The age of the participants ranged from 18 to 30 years, with a mean of 20.04 years (SD = 2.36).
Over a two-day period, the second author approached students, who were eating in the campus dining facilities during lunchtime, about participating in the study. The research project was explained, and those who agreed to participate were given a questionnaire to complete. They received a candy bar for their participation.
Demographics. The demographic portion of the questionnaire included items asking about sex, ethnicity, year in school (freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior), residency (on campus or off campus), how many years at the particular campus, grade point average (GPA), and academic major.
Sensation seeking. We used Arnett’s (1992) Inventory of Sensation Seeking (/AISS) to measure sensation seeking. Arnett’s measure is more contemporary than Zuckerman’s version. This scale consists of 20 descriptive statements to which participants respond on a four-point Likert scale (4 = describes me very well to 1 = does not describe me at all). Scores can range from 20 to 80. There are two 10-item subscales (Novelty and Intensity), with scores for each ranging from 10 to 40. Arnett (1992) reports a reliability of .70 for the total scale and similar reliabilities for the subscales. For this sample, Cronbach’s alpha was .58.
Internet use. We created items to assess use of the Internet. Participants self-reported their Internet use in the past 24 hours, in the past week, and in the past 30 days (from common tasks such as sending email to more “arousing” activities such as gambling and viewing sex-oriented material).
Music preference. We created a list of 15 common genres of music (e.g., alternative, jazz, ska) that participants rated on a four-point Likert scale (1 = do not like to 4 = like a lot). Participants also indicated the one category of music that they listened to most.
Close relationships. We created four items to assess close and casual relationships. Two items assessed general level of friendship (“How many close friends do you have?” and “How many casual friends do you have?”), which were rated on a five-point Likert scale (1 = many to 5 = none). The other two items asked about specific number of friends (“If you had to estimate the number of close friends you currently have, how many would you say?” and “If you had to estimate the number of casual friends you currently have, how many would you say?”), with a blank space for participants to fill in a number.
The sample consisted of 45% freshmen, 32% sophomores, 14% juniors, and 8% seniors; 82% indicated living in campus residence halls, 8% in campus apartments, and 9% off campus. The sample reflected all types of majors; an overview revealed that 11.8% were in the arts, 11% in business, 11% in the humanities, 27% in science and technology, 27% in social sciences, and 12.5% undeclared.
For this sample, total scores ranged from 36 to 72 (M = 55.31, SD = 6.47). For the Novelty subscale, the range was from 19 to 38 (M = 28.04, SD = 3.90). For the Intensity subscale, the range was from 17 to 39 (M = 27.19, SD = 4.35). Using a one-way ANOVA, males, as expected, scored significantly higher than females on total sensation seeking (M = 57.80 versus M = 53.38), F(1, 116) = 14.96, p < .001. There were similar patterns for the Novelty and Intensity subscales, F(1, 122) = 4.69,p < .005, and F(1,127) = 17.43,p < .001, respectively. There were no significant ethnic, major, year in school, or GPA differences on sensation seeking. In terms of residency, there was a significant difference, with those living in the residence halls having higher Intensity subscale scores than those living in campus apartments or off campus, F(2, 127) = 3.78, p = .02. However, this may have been due to a significant inverse relationship between age and the Intensity subscale, r = -.26, p = .003.
Close and casual friendships varied widely for this sample. On the scaled item for close friends, 23% of the participants indicated they had many, 43% a fair amount, 23% a few, 9% very few, and 2% none. When asked to estimate the actual number, participants indicated from 0 to 80 close friends, with a mean of 7.4 (SD = 7.8, mode = 10). On the scaled item for casual friends, 65% of the participants indicated they had many, 27% had a fair amount, 5% a few, 2% very few, and 2% none. When asked to estimate the actual number, participants indicated from 1 to 400 casual friends, with a mean of 37.5 (SD = 60.5, mode = 20).
High sensation seeking (total scale) was related to having more close friends (scaled item), r = -.22, p = .017 (see Table 1). Similarly, the Intensity subscale was related to having more close friends (scaled item), r = -.17, p < .05. Further, there was a positive relationship between the number of close friends (estimated) and the Novelty subscale, r = .25, p < .01. High sensation seeking (total scale) was also related to having more casual friends (scaled item), r = -.22, p < .05. In addition, there was a positive relationship between the number of casual friends (estimated) and both total sensation seeking, r = .27, p < .01, and the Novelty subscale, r = .25, p < .05.
Participants used the Internet for diverse activities. In the 24 hours prior to completing the questionnaire, 29% used the Internet to read the news, 30% to play games, 90% to access and send e-mail, 65% to download or play music, 10% to get sex-oriented material, 63% to chat/ instant message with known friends, 18% to chat/instant message with virtual friends, 9% to chat/instant message in a chat room, 66% to conduct research, 49% to access library resources, 6% to access a dating/singles website, 63% to surf the Internet, 11% to watch Internet movies, 2% to form relationships with strangers, 7% to find out about drugs or drug-related material, and less than 1% to gamble. In the past week, a similar pattern of Internet use emerged, with the top three activities being to access and send e-mail (87%), to access library resources (37%), and to read the news (29%). In the prior 30 days, the top three Internet activities were to read the news (28%), to chat/ instant message with known friends (28%), and to play games (26%). Moreover, in the 30-day period, 20% or more of the participants indicated using the Internet to get sex-oriented material, to chat/instant message with virtual friends, to access library resources, to access a dating/singles website, to gamble, to form relationships with strangers, and to find out about drugs or drug-related material.
Independent-samples t tests were conducted to evaluate the hypothesis that high sensation seeking would be related to Internet activities (see Table 2). Participants who used the Internet to get sex-oriented material, in the past 24 hours, scored higher on total sensation seeking (M = 61.33, SD = 7.41) than those who had not used the Internet for that activity (M = 54.44, SD = 5.89), t(112) = 3.73,p < .001. Participants who had accessed the Internet to get sex-oriented material in the past 24 hours also scored higher on the Intensity subscale (M = 31.69, SD = 4.57) than those who had not (M = 26.60, SD = 3.94), t(123) = 4.34, p < .001. Participants who, in the past 24 hours, used the Internet to download or play music scored higher on the Intensity subscale (M = 27.89, SD = 4.21) than those who had not downloaded or played music (M = 25.70, SD = 4.07), t(123) = 2.79, p = .006. In the previous 24 hours, participants who had accessed the Internet to play games and to chat/instant message with friends scored higher on the Intensity subscale (M = 28.37, SD = 4.08, and M = 27.84, SD = 4.00) than those who had not done so (M = 26.60, SD = 4.28, and M = 25.93, SD = 4.52), t(123) = 2.16, p = .03, and t(123) = 2.44, p = .02, respectively. Participants who used the Internet to play games, to download or play music, and to watch Internet movies, in the past 24 hours, scored higher on total sensation seeking than those who had not done so, with differences/approaching significance (p < .10).
In the past week, those who used the Internet to conduct research scored higher on total sensation seeking (M = 56.97, SD = 7.24) than those who had not conducted research using the Internet (M = 54.40, SD = 5.88), t(112) = 1.99, p = .05. In addition, participants who had not chatted/instant messaged with friends in the past week (M = 55.85, SD = 6.06) had higher total sensation seeking scores than those who had (M = 53.07, SD = 7.04), t(l12) = -2.02, p = .05. Similarly, those who had not chatted/instant messaged with virtual friends (i.e., they had never met face-to-face) in the past week (M = 55.68, SD = 6.06) had higher total sensation seeking scores than those who had (M = 51.15, SD = 7.71), t(112) = -2.46, p = .02. When asked about Internet use over the previous 30 days, participants who had not used the Internet to read the news scored higher on total sensation seeking (M = 56.01, SD = 5.90) than those who had used the Internet to read the news (M = 53.00, SD = 7.16), t(112) = -2.30,p = .02. In the past 30 days, participants who had surfed the Internet scored higher on total sensation seeking (M = 60.00, SD = 6.94) than those who had not surfed the Internet (M = 54.70, SD = 6.17), t(112) = 2.56,p = .01.
We analyzed scores on music preference (liking scale: 1 = do not like, 2 = somewhat dislike, 3 = like, and 4 = like a lot). The most liked music styles were reggae (M = 3.04), oldies (M = 3.00), and alternative (M = 2.94); see Table 3. Participants least liked country, electronic/dance, and ska music.
Liking certain music styles and level of sensation seeking were positively correlated (see Table 3). There were positive relationships between total sensation seeking and liking heavy metal, punk, reggae, and ska music. There were also significant positive relationships between the Novelty subscale and liking electronic/dance, heavy metal, Latin, reggae, ska, and world music. The Intensity subscale was positively correlated with liking heavy metal and punk, and negatively correlated with liking Latin, oldies, R & B, and pop/rock.
Participants listened most often to punk (16%), alternative (16%), pop/rock (9%), and hip hop (9%). Those who spent more time listening to punk, compared with other music styles, had significantly higher total sensation seeking scores, F(13, 104) = 2.74, p = .003, and significantly higher Intensity subscale scores, F(13, 114) = 3.16, p = .001.
Because high sensation seekers have a strong need for optimal arousal and stimulation, they were expected to have a greater number of personal relationships. In fact, higher sensation seeking was related to having a greater number of close and casual friendships. However, the strength of the association was moderate. It could be that friends provide the needed stimuli for some sensation seekers, while others look for arousing stimuli elsewhere. It would be worthwhile to further investigate prospectively whether high sensation seekers do tend to interact with more people as well as perceive that having many friends provides stimulation in their lives.
Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukopadhyay, and Scherlis (1998) noted that individuals can use the Internet in socially oriented and interactive ways or in isolative ways. Their research indicated that greater Internet use was associated with increases in depression and reductions in social interaction. However, they pointed out that the rationale behind accessing the Internet could have been a factor in the results. In the present study, higher sensation seeking was associated with getting sex-oriented material from the Internet, clearly a high-arousal activity, in the previous 24 hours. In addition, the Intensity dimension of sensation seeking was related to getting sex-oriented material, downloading or playing music, playing games, and chatting/ instant messaging with friends. In a broader time frame (over the past week), higher sensation seeking was associated with less chatting/ instant messaging with known and virtual friends, which may indicate the high sensation seeker’s need to have face-to-face interactions rather than virtual ones. Interestingly, Lavin, Marvin, McLarney, Nola, and Scott (1999) found that college students who spent more time on-line had lower levels of sensation seeking. These researchers indicated that there might be a subset of sensation seekers who desire nonphysical sensations as opposed to physical thrills, which are typically assessed in measures of sensation seeking. The results of the current study indicate that there may be some sensation seekers who do, in fact, look for stimulation via nonphysical means such as the Internet. Further investigation into how Internet use satisfies sensation seekers’ needs is merited, particularly with its increased interactivity, faster communication, and more real-time capabilities.
In past research, heavy metal and/or rock music has been found to be related to high sensation seeking (Arnett, 1992, 1995; Litle & Zuckerman, 1986; Zuckerman, 1994). In this study, punk emerged as a genre of music that is associated with high sensation seeking. Similar to heavy metal and rock music, punk is loud and raucous, and is still seen as being out of the mainstream. Liking reggae was also related to higher sensation seeking, perhaps because it is outside the norm for this sample of mostly Euroamerican and Hispanic students.
In conclusion, the results may indicate that there are subtypes of sensation seekers. Some may need physical thrills, and others may satisfy their need for stimulation through being with friends, listening to music, or using the Internet.
Correlations Between Sensation Seeking and Friendships
Variable Total Novelty Intensity
Close friendships (scaled) -.22 * ns -.17 *
Number of close friends (estimated) ns .25 ** ns
Casual friendships (scaled) -.22* ns ns
Number of casual friends (estimated) .27 ** .25 * ns
Note. ns = not significant, *p <.05, **p <.01.
Means and Standard Deviations for Sensation Seeking and
Internet Activity M (SD) M (SD) p
Past 24 hours
Get sex-oriented 61.33 (7.41) 54.44 (5.89) <.001
Download or play music 55.95 (6.18) 53.54 (6.61) ns
Play games 56.74 (6.30) 54.50 (6.36) ns
Chat/instant message 55.96 (5.86) 53.73 (7.14) ns
Conduct research 56.97 (7.24) 54.40 (5.88) .05
Chat/instant message 53.07 (7.04) 55.85 (6.06) .05
Chat/instant message 51.15 (7.71) 55.68 (6.06) .02
with virtual friends
Past 30 days
Read the news 53.00 (7.16) 56.01 (5.90) .02
Surf the Internet 60.00 (6.94) 54.70 (6.17) .01
Internet Activity M (SD) M (SD) p
Past 24 hours
Get sex-oriented 31.69 (4.57) 26.60 (3.94) <.001
Download or play music 27.89 (4.21) 25.70 (4.07) .006
Play games 28.37 (4.08) 26.60 (4.28) .03
Chat/instant message 27.84 (4.00) 25.93 (4.52) .02
Conduct research 28.49 (4.27) 26.57 (4.18) .02
Chat/instant message 26.03 (4.20) 27.47 (4.27) ns
Chat/instant message 25.29 (4.34) 27.37 (4.27) ns
with virtual friends
Past 30 days
Read the news 26.11 (3.78) 27.53 (4.42) ns
Surf the Internet 29.80 (4.98) 26.90 (4.16) .04
Internet Activity M (SD) M (SD) p
Past 24 hours
Get sex-oriented 29.17 (4.97) 27.81 (3.78) ns
Download or play music 27.88 (3.91) 28.10 (3.95) ns
Play games 28.26 (4.15) 27.82 (3.82) ns
Chat/instant message 28.00 (3.72) 27.86 (4.27) ns
Conduct research 28.58 (3.81) 27.68 (3.94) ns
Chat/instant message 27.07 (4.14) 28.23 (3.81) ns
Chat/instant message 26.07 (4.43) 28.20 (3.79) ns
with virtual friends
Past 30 days
Read the news 26.84 (4.29) 28.37 (3.70) ns
Surf the Internet 30.09 (3.15) 27.73 (3.92) ns
Note. ns = not significant.
Mean Scores on the Liking Scale and Correlations
Between Sensation Seeking and Music Preferences
Liking Scale Sensation Seeking
Music Style M Total Intensity Novelty
Alternative 2.94 ns ns ns
Country 2.17 ns ns ns
Electronic/dance 2.28 ns ns .22 *
Heavy metal 2.44 .34 ** .28 ** .22 *
Hip hop 2.81 ns ns ns
Jazz 2.44 ns ns ns
Latin 2.40 ns -.23 * .19 *
Oldies 3.00 ns -.18 * ns
Pop/rock 2.36 ns -.23 * ns
Punk 2.51 .33 ** .29 ** ns
R & B 2.74 ns -.21 * ns
Rap 2.71 ns ns ns
Reggae 3.04 .22 * ns .28 **
Ska 2.26 .23 * ns .20 *
World 2.47 ns ns .36 **
Note. Liking scale: 1 = do not like, 2 = somewhat dislike, 3 = like,
4 = like a lot.
ns = not significant, *p < .05, **p <.01.
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Laurel C. Murphy, Department of Child Development, Tufts University. Requests for reprints should be sent to Robert S. Weisskirch, Department of Liberal Studies, California State University, Monterey Bay, 100 Campus Center, Building 15, Seaside, California 93955. E-mail should be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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