New Sensations

Bungee jumpers, car thieves, and politicians may have something in common—sensation-seeking behavior that began in their playground days.

"Sensation-seeking behavior is frequently seen in criminals, but it is also associated with politicians and entertainers," says Sam Putnam, a Ph.D. candidate in human development and family studies at Penn State. "It's been studied a great deal in adults, but not as much in children."

boy at the top of triangular gym set

Hang on kiddo! Some sensation-seeking children may climb to dizzying heights for a thrill.

Putnam completed his master's thesis, "Sensation-Seeking In Five-Year-Old Boys," as a member of the research group of distinguished professor of human development Jay Belsky and professor of psychology Keith Crnic.

The group asked 52 first-born five-year-old boys a set of 24 questions. Would you rather go down a slide head first or feet first? Would you rather jump into a swimming pool or go in slowly? Would you rather play with a new toy or an old familiar toy? Would you rather wrestle with a playful dog or lie down beside a resting dog?

"We looked at two processes," Putnam explains, "Sensation-seeking," he leans forward, his eyes widening, "and inhibition," he draws back and pulls his hands and arms in close to his chest.

Some of the children's responses: I sure wouldn't lay next to a dog,'cause it might poop in my bed. I would go down the slide back first. I'd stand on the slide and surf down it. I don't like slides, but sometimes I go down other things head first.

"Work with kids that are a little older shows a positive correlation between sensation-seeking and aggression," says Putnam. "We thought that we would see the same thing here, but we didn't." Putnam continues, "So the question is, how does this behavior interact with parenting and other environmental factors?

"In middle childhood some kids might fulfill their sensation-seeking needs by skateboarding and football, while kids from a less advantageous background might get their kicks by stealing hubcaps and shoplifting," he says. "The select group of first-born boys we are studying may not really reflect the nature of sensation-seeking in kids."

The children were all from white, well-educated families. "Jay chose boys because they tend to have more behavior problems," explains Putnam. The research group first observed them at age one, and then again on regular intervals until the age of five. They will continue to study the same children, now six years old. "They're going to have them sticking their fingers in bowls with different textures inside, trying different tastes œ sour, salty, sweet, crawling through a scary tunnel œ sticking their heads inside a black box with a light," he says. "They're continuing to index whether the kids are willing to engage in risk-taking."

Putnam meanwhile, has begun new studies with Cynthia Stifter, associate professor of human development. As part of his Ph.D. dissertation, he is now trying to understand sensation-seeking in a group of two-year-old boys and girls. "I'm having them crawl up a series of steps surrounded by mattresses to see if they will jump off increasingly higher steps. I'll also look at social inhibition again, how they feel about being approached by strangers."

Putnam and Stifter are interested in the children's physiological responses, such as heart-rate. "There are two responses to a situation," he explains. "The sympathetic response œ you see a scary dog and your heart rate accelerates. That's the fight or flight." He continues, "The parasympathetic response is when your heart rate slows down and you have an opportunity to judge whether the dog will really hurt you or not." Putnam thinks that sensation-seeking kids may have a lack of the sympathetic response. "Some evidence suggests that sensation-seekers may be underaroused when confronted with risky situations," he says. "They may seek more intense stimuli to raise their level of arousal to a pleasurable level." It may take a Jurassic Park dinosaur instead of just a big dog to get them excited.

Putnam spent five years working at a day-care center before coming to Penn State. "There seemed to be an intrinsic difference between some of the kids," he says. "The differences appeared even when they were infants. On the playground, some kids inched their way down the firepole, other kids would swing and jump off. Some would take a running jump at the slide and then dive down it, other kids wouldn't go down it at all. By two to five years old, certain behaviors were really cemented in place."

Putnam is looking at parents' contributions to child development. Part of his study involves a checklist given to parents asking them what kinds of games they play with their children. "We're trying to look at the interaction between biology and environment," he explains.

A self-described sensation-seeker, Putnam has stocked his office with toys ("testing materials"). He picks one up. "It's a champagne popper," he says. "It's really a small explosive." He pulls the string and the sound is like a start gun at a track race. "We show this to the kids and then ask them if they want to see it again." He smiles. "We've gotten some great individual responses." Putnam looks around at the Legos, noisemakers, and blocks on his shelves.

"I'll be here working on my dissertation," he says, "watching these kids grow up."

Samuel Putnam is a Ph.D. candidate in human development and family studies, College of Health and Human Development, E-149 East Henderson, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1447; spp120@psu.edu. His adviser is Cynthia Stifter, Ph.D, associate professor of human development and family studies, 110S Henderson Bldg. South; 865-1447; tvr@psu.edu. Their research is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Last Updated January 01, 1998