psychology, psychometrics

Because I’m bored: A post about novelty seeking

Do you know anyone who is easily bored? Always looking for the novel, the exciting, the stimulating? You might see this trait manifest in different ways: the heli-skiier, the intellectual omnivore, the golf-sensation/sex-addict, even the heroin abuser likely have in common a drive to avoid boredom and a twin drive to experience excitement in whatever form works best for them.

Some psychologists call this novelty seeking, sensation seeking, or stimulation seeking.* Here’s one definition of sensation seeking:

a trait 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 experiences. (Zuckerman & Kuhlman, 2000)

I took the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personal Questionnaire sensation seeking scale and scored 84%, High bordering on Very High. I’m easily bored. I’m always looking for the next excitement, usually intellectual but could be something else. My need for novelty makes it hard to ever reach equilibrium because I inevitably get distracted by sparkly objects passing by.

It’s a good thing

That definition makes sensation seeking sound like a mostly negative thing (all those risks!) but in my experience, it’s not. Because I’m easily bored, I’ve had a pretty exciting life, I think. In Penelope Trunk’s framing, I’ve prioritized having an interesting life over a happy one. In the past, I have sacrificed comfort and stability for the new and different, whether it was a new job or a new career or a new house or a new state.

But now I find myself leaning more towards trying to have a happy, stable life rather than an interesting and exciting one. Sensation seeking declines with age, and I think I might have reached a pretty optimal level for where I am in my life. I’m totally willing to take intellectual leaps and risks, where some people in their early 40s might be stuck with tired ideas. I wouldn’t rule out moving our family yet again if the right opportunity arose. I take risks like blogging about random stuff that enters my bored brain. And yet I’m settled and stable in many ways I couldn’t have imagined in my 20s: I am satisfied with my husband, my neighborhood, my house, my career path, my colleagues.

It’s in the genes

There’s evidence of a genetic basis for novelty seeking, and also evidence that novelty seeking may be a risk factor for drug dependence.

And, novelty seekers may be more intelligent on average. From a 2002 paper in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology:

The prediction that high stimulation seeking 3-yr-olds would have higher IQs by 11 yrs old was tested in 1,795 children on whom behavioral measures of stimulation seeking were taken at 3 yrs, together with cognitive ability at 11 yrs. High 3-yr-old stimulation seekers scored 12 points higher on total IQ at age 11 compared with low stimulation seekers and also had superior scholastic and reading ability. Results replicated across independent samples and were found for all gender and ethnic groups. Effect sizes for the relationship between age 3 stimulation seeking and age 11 IQ ranged from 0.52 to 0.87. Findings appear to be the first to show a prospective link between stimulation seeking and intelligence. It is hypothesized that young stimulation seekers create for themselves an enriched environment that stimulates cognitive development. [emphasis added]

I think adult stimulation/sensation/novelty seekers can do the same thing.


*Are novelty-seeking and sensation-seeking the same thing? Maybe.