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Many dynamic patterns observable at the neurosystems level in humans are paralleled on the macro level as human behavior. Just as homeostatic systems act to keep physiological states in equilibrium, humans act or behave to keep particular areas of experience or perceived states within a “comfort zone”. A basic example is that of the feedback system loop for hunger--activity which takes place on the molecular and cellular level corresponds to gross motor and motivated behavior of the whole organism.
Along with behaviors needed for survival, such as feeding and reproduction, neuropsychological research suggests that more subtle human characteristics--personality characteristics--may also be under the influence of, or at least greatly correlated with, specific neurotract systems. One such characteristic is identified under the rubric of sensation seeking or risk-taking or susceptibility to boredom. This characteristic, which appears to be a trait influencing behavior, is distributed among humans in varying degrees. When present at high levels, an extroverted, adventuresome, thrill seeking personality type emerges. A high level of sensation seeking appears more often than usual, however, in those individuals showing sociopathic, antisocial, or borderline personality characteristics. In these individuals, sensation seeking leads to frequent and varied maladaptive behaviors, resulting in incarceration or harm to the self or others.
The purpose of this paper is to investigate the concept of sensation seeking not as a trait but as a waxing and waning drive or state condition, related not only to 1) motivation-driving biological substrates, but in the case of those who are sociopathic, also to 2) conditioned cues, and 3) expected psychodynamic conflict resolution patterns. The convergence of these distinct theoretical perspectives in predicting periodic unbridled sensation seeking in the sociopathic personality is summarized below. It is suggested that biological tendencies on the micro level can be amplified and solidified by events at the macro level to the extent that the search for equilibrium, the motivation for sensation seeking in the sociopath, becomes almost inevitable, if not involuntary. The need for the sociopath to experience a flood of or a climactic type of stimulation in order to achieve equilibrium (much as a hungry person will seek nourishment), and that one fundamental approach to meeting this need is through substance abuse, is suggested. It is hypothesized that an intervention designed to alleviate this needs state would reduce the immediacy of the sensation seeking drive, and should hypothetically result in lower rates of substance abuse.
Biological Underpinnings of Sensation Seeking and Sociopathy
Several areas of neurobiological research converge to suggest that there is a strong biological component contributing to impulsive, risky, thrill-seeking behaviors in the population in general and in the sociopathic individual in particular: 1) Sociopaths differ from normals biologically; 2) Sensation seekers differ from normals biologically, and in similar patterns as sociopaths; and 3) There is a strong association between sociopathy and high levels of sensation seeking.
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These hard data furnish specific support for early models which hypothesized that observable behaviors of the extraverted personality type were driven by very low levels of arousal at the neurological level. Eysenck proposed and found (1970) that the base rate of arousal of the reticular formation was high in introverts and low in extraverts, with the result that extraverts, in order to increase a “suboptimal” level of arousal, will seek out highly stimulating activities. The extreme form of this underarousal resulted in a “General Arousal Theory of Criminality” (Eysenck & Gudjonsson, 1989). More recent versions of an underlying neurological basis for extreme or risky externalizing behaviors come from Gray’s (1987) behavioral approach-inhibition model and Cloninger’s three-factor model of “novelty-seeking”, “harm-avoidance”, and “reward-dependence” (Cloninger, Svrakic, & Przybeck, 1993). The assumptions underlying these models were in accord with known neural systems and predicted varying levels of dopamine in correspondence with novelty seeking; serotonin with harm avoidance, and norepinephrine with reward dependence. Data now support these predictions (Mealy, 1995).
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It is generally surmised that due to a low, suboptimal state of arousal, the underaroused individual seeks to increase arousal rates to reach an “at ease” level. When the distinctive biology of sociopathy is considered, then--a collection of neurotransmitter-driven microsystems seeking to achieve a “homeostatic” level set by the microsystem itself--it should not be surprising that an unrelenting, primarily surface-processed behavior pattern is found, similar to that of a cold person seeking warmth, or the effects of the presence and persistence of “hunger”. This biology produces a varying motivational state condition, over and above an individual’s trait condition. That is, an extrovert remains an extrovert but can be in a high or low state of motivation to flood, neurotransmitter-wise, specific neurotracts. A chronic (trait) “big eater” can be so full that food is (temporarily, state) uninteresting and unmotivating.
The supposition that arousal systems such as the reticular formation act homeostatically, within a feedback loop model, and that they directly, automatically affect behavior and personality cannot be studied directly in humans. However, invasive research of the nervous system with animals has provided support for this model. For example, Lukas and Siegel (1977) measured evoked potentials (EPs) in cats through increasingly intense visual flashes and through direct (electrode) stimulation of the reticular formation. Cats had been previously rated on several behaviors (exploration, aggression, withdrawal, visual contact, emotionality, responsiveness, and activity) during free movement within a chamber and during presentation with five noxious stimuli. The most behaviorally responsive animals, those who showed high levels of the behaviors listed above in response to noxious stimuli, proved to be “augmenters”; that is, their EPs increased with increasing stimulation. Behaviorally unresponsive cats-- reducers--showed smaller increases or decreases in EPs with increasing flash intensity. Reducers’ cortical responsiveness decreased in response to reticular stimulation above the EEG desynchronization threshold, while augmenters’ was elevated above control levels. Data from these and other animal studies led Lukas and Siegel to suggest that individual human differences in patterns of automatic brain augmentation or reduction of incoming stimuli “may have profound behavioral effects ”(p. 74).
2) The biological correlates of sensation seeking parallel those found in sociopathic individuals. For example, Zuckerman (1989) found that sensation seeking is negatively correlated with levels of dopamine-beta-hydroxylase (DBH); extremely low levels of which are also related to conduct disorder and sociopathy. Low levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO) are found in both antisocial and sensation seeking individuals (Ellis, 1991; Zuckerman, 1989). Significantly lower levels of adrenaline (epinephrine) and of the seratonin metabolite 5-HIAA are found in both criminals and sensation seekers. Gabel, et al., (1994) found that high sensation seeking was inversely correlated with 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol (MHPG) levels, common to antisocial youth. In a study measuring DBH, MAO, and catechol-0-methyl-transferase (COMT), 31 men originally seen as children (aged 4-12 years) for impulsiveness, distractibility, and overactivity were tested in their twenties. MAO levels were negatively associated with drug and cigarette use, fire setting, and sensation seeking; DBH levels were positively associated with sensation seeking, and COMT levels were negatively associated with hostility and positively associated with impulsiveness (Kuperman, Kramer, & Loney, 1988)
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3) Sensation seeking and risk taking have long been identified as behaviors common to the psychopath (Cleckly, 1955, 1982) and have emerged as an important factor in the personality make-up of those showing sociopathic, antisocial, borderline, or conduct disordered behavior. Youth with conduct disorder showed significantly elevated scores on a sensation scale for children (Russo, Lahey, & Christ, 1991). Zuckerman found a strong relationship between sensation seeking scores and various risky behaviors, including high levels of gambling, drinking, and sexual activity, as well as an aversion to work or “dull and boring people” (Zuckerman, 1980, p. 189). Assaultive delinquent youth have been shown to rate higher on sensation seeking than nonassaultive delinquent youth (Berman & Paisey, 1984). Similar data have been found in various cultures; e.g., among a large sample of Spanish medical students, sensation seeking was positively associated with antisocial behavior (Perez & Torrubia, 1985).
The sensation seeking scale is correlated with the psychopathic deviate scale of the MMPI, and among prisoners discriminates among primary, secondary, and non-sociopathic inmates (Zuckerman, 1990).The SPY scale of sociopathy has four factors, one of which is sensation seeking (Penner & Speilberger, 1988).
Physiological differences between groups are not small. Mealy (1995) cites generally moderate to large effect sizes and reports that in one study, “80% of the variance in aggression scores of their sample was explained by levels of 5-HIAA [a seratonin metabolite] alone; Kruesi et al. reported that knowing 5-HIAA levels increased the explained variance of aggression at a two year follow up from 65% (using clinical measures only) to 91% (clinical measures plus 5-HIAA)” (p.531). For reviews and meta-analyses of the psychophysiological studies involving sensation seeking and sociopathic, borderline, conduct disordered, and criminally-oriented individuals, see Ellis (1987); Eysenck & Gudjonsson (1989); Mednick et al., (1987);and Zuckerman, (1990).
In summary, from a biological view the sensation seeker is highly motivated--perhaps impelled--to act to change internal biological states. Yet the sociopathic sensation seeker, whether through genetic or environmental variables, does not appear to have the same ability or inclination as the mere extravert to inhibit or screen such impulses, much like the individual who eats in an unrestricted and unhealthy manner vs. the merely voracious eater, or the alcoholic vs. the funny, creative, rewarded, entertaining social drinker.
It is important to consider whether conditions exist at a macro level which could serve to amplify, supplement, or reinforce this collection of biological tendencies. Cicchetti and Toth (1998) suggest that only by considering macro-, eco-, micro-, and ontogenic systems in a transactional way can distal outcomes be predicted. Specifically, it may be asked whether there are additional conditions which are particularly likely to be found in the lives of sociopaths, which could strengthen the urge to seek sensation. Two augmenting conditions are suggested below. Data from behavioral research involving conditioning and modeling is briefly outlined, and suggest that unchecked sensation seeking behaviors are learned and reinforced early in the development of the sociopathic personality. Secondly, a more personality-based or psychodynamic view is presented wherein predictions based on early family dynamics dovetail with behavioral and biological predictions that those high in sociopathic tendencies will experience the motivational state of sensation seeking as something natural, habitual, involuntary and undeniable.
If this is the case, then drugs, which are widely available and often culturally acceptable, may provide an easy way of “scratching the itch.” Heroin users and other opiate users have been shown to be “stimulus augmenters, with a low tolerance for boredom and a need for sensation seeking” (Craig, 1986, p. 25). Physiological differences have been found among drug users who prefer particular drugs; those preferring multiple drugs or cocaine tended to be higher in sensation seeking than those preferring alcohol (O’Connor et al., 1995). Studies investigating sensation-seeking and drug use indicate certain biological correspondences: for example, it was mentioned above that low levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO) are found in both antisocial and sensation seeking individuals (Ellis, 1991; Zuckerman, 1989). Sabelli et al. (1974) found that tetrahydrocannabinol affects levels of 2-phenylethylamine (PEA), a neuromodulator involved in arousal and excitement. Levels of PEA are increased by antidepressive treatment of MAO inhibitors in animals. Sabelli reports that marijuana significantly increases levels of PEA and that the “observed increase in the brain levels of PEA induced by THC are associated with an increase in free PEA available at receptor sites and that this is responsible for some of the stimulant effects of THC.” (p. 145).
The effects of drugs (including alcohol) are close to immediate in effect and may provide relief with a minimum of effort. Additionally, the use of drugs (along with other risky, thrilling behaviors) as a coping mechanism may be particularly modeled in home environments common to the young sociopath, outlined below. Just as food assuages the homeostatically-driven hunger state, and sexual climax terminates the motivation to engage in reproductive behaviors, substances may provide a quick, logical, and somewhat culturally-sanctioned relief for the high sensation-seeking state.
Learning, Sociopathy, and Sensation Seeking
While one body of research demonstrates quicker or stronger (learning through) conditioning in those who show high levels of autonomic arousal (e.g., Hursti, et al., 1992), results are mixed (e.g., Raine & Venables, 1981). Regardless of the complexity of these data, it is true that all humans experience paired events, as well as reward and punishment. Additionally, vicarious conditioning (through observation or modeling) can augment classical/operant conditioning. Evidence can be shown that in general, the sociopathic personality type may have overlearned from early, even “preconscious” models the behavior, indeed the normality of seeking climactic or “flood” levels of stimulation.
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Learning risky or stimulating behaviors may begin to occur first due to simple modeling effects. That gross behavioral modeling is a primary learning method for children, has been thoroughly described (Bandura, 1977; Patterson, 1982). The imitation dynamic has been documented in infants two to three weeks old (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977). Children under two years old have been shown to imitate unrewarded novel acts after weeks’ and months’ delay, after only one viewing. (Meltzoff, 1988).
It is well documented that those displaying conduct disordered or sociopathic tendencies are particularly likely to have come from familial backgrounds with similar characteristics, involving conflict, violence, substance use, criminality, and lack of stability (DSM-IV; Earls, 1987; Frick et al., 1992; Gove & Crutchfeild, 1982; Jary & Stewart, 1985; Jouriles, Murphy, & O’Leary, 1989; Lahey, et al., 1988; Stewart & Leone, 1978). While a genetic contribution to sociopathic or antisocial tendencies has been supported, a strong environmental effect is also apparent (Cadoret, 1978; Cadoret et al., 1983, Cadoret et al., 1995).
Hott (1979) stated that the following etiological factors often exist in the home life of those who end up with sociopathic personalities:
These children are often exposed to overt violence and abuse by parents and others. The use of alcohol and drugs, sexual problems, and the like are part of the background of the family of the potential [sociopath] The family usually moves frequently, offering no stable roots for the child to develop. Authority goals for this growing child are never clearly established. Rarely is mature affection, tenderness, or trust shown. There is always a lack of parental cooperation with authority, either overtly or covertly. This child...cannot identify with parental role models of socialization...(p. 238-239).
Yet the child does identify, or at least imitate these behaviors of the parent. For example, among teenagers, witnessing abuse significantly increases the risk to commit future abuse, regardless of personal abuse history (Miller, et al., 1991). Boys who witness spouse abuse or familial violence show a vastly greater likelihood of repeating such violence in their own families or against their own spouses than other boys (Carroll, 1977; Livingston, 1986 Straus & Gelles, 1990).
During the modeling and behaving process, conditioning at the classical and operant level is occurring. The first type of conditioning which could occur might be vicarious emotional conditioning. Early studies demonstrated that emotional responses can be conditioned in individuals through observing models’ emotional reactions to external stimuli (Bandura & Rosenthal, 1966; Berger, 1962). Children who observe positive emotional states expressed by adults in reaction to drug use, or drinking alcohol, or overt sexual behavior, or beating up a neighbor, or fooling the police, or “showing the boss who’s who” are seeing, consistently and constantly, dangerous sensation seeking paired with positive emotion. Even (or perhaps especially) in the case where negative emotions arise first, such as the negative affect which might be shown by both father and mother during a battering episode, a high level of “remorse”, apology, “love” and peace often follows (Pagelow, 1981). The effect of vicarious conditioning in the troubled home is to create an expectancy of good feeling to follow specific, highly stimulating, often provocative behaviors. This may be particularly salient in the case of alcohol or drug use, where behaviors of use are easy to watch, and where “positive” verbal (‘oh, yeah, that’s good”) and affective/behavioral (smiles, laughter, closed eyes, happiness or peacefulness [nodding off] or excitement), outcomes follow ingestion closely in time. Close temporal contingency and consistency in pairing may shape substance use into an exceptionally well-learned coping mechanism to reduce a needs state.
During basic classical conditioning, variables such as emotions are displaced from their biological stimuli to events paired with these stimuli (Watson & Rayner, 1920; Mowrer, 1960). For children from homes where antisocial and narcissistic behaviors are the norm, the biological stimuli caused by being hit or yelled at or sexually traumatized--by being scared or hurt or angry--are often paired with conflicting events. When a child is being valued while being sexually abused; when a child is told they are being beat because they are loved; when a child is scared by the police but the family celebrates happily, raucously when the police leave, a conditioning effect may well be to seek these types of events, especially if this is the only time that adults in the home show pleasure. Relief is often paired with intense or climactic stimuli. Alcohol or drug abuse may be originally modeled as simply a “good” thing to do, as an admirable or adult thing to do; may be paired with contentment or relief or excitement--but if substance use also satisfies the biological needs state for sensation seeking, then not to use actually seems a foolish path.
It is postulated here then,
that highly stimulating, “climactic flooding” type events are
eventually conditioned to mean that relief is coming, on the emotional level, on the bodily/physical level. Even if a specific drug’s use was not molecularly creating equilibrium in a homeostatically-based sensation-seeking loop, it may well be that the expectancies associated with “flooding” or climaxing with drugs, through classical conditioning, may prove sufficient to stabilize the loop. However, in many cases, behaviors which have been modeled--drug use, alcoholism, intoxicated spouse battering, yelling, overt sexual behavior, child abuse--are highly stimulating/reaction producing on the neurobiological level, producing deep, unanalyzed relief for the underaroused.
A current view of classical and operant conditioning allows a fusion of the two types; at any rate they are no longer thought to be entirely distinct (Atnip, 1977; DiCara, 1970). Biological changes may be expected to occur concomitantly with operant reward, causing classical conditioning; additionally, conditioned responses may differ from original responses to biological stimuli even to the extreme of complete reversal, as has been found in research with drug use and unexpected overdose (Siegal, 1983). It can be seen than, that if sensational events are paired with positive outcome, the mere occurrence of one may constitute a reward.
Ainslie (1984) presents a model of “Specious Reward”--a theory which suggests that behavior can seem motivated yet involuntary. He hypothesizes that “temporary preferences for smaller, immediate rewards will undermine the far-sighted processes...”; he states that “temporary preferences themselves may be the simplest source of motivated behavior which is experienced as involuntary, and at times may be remembered as an impulse which is akin to an ‘alien force’” (p. 53). Ainslie suggests that the normal individual forestalls impulses in four ways: 1) setting up external controls, such as medication, diet pills, probation; 2) diversion, or setting up environmental behavioral contingency plans, restricting one’s environment; 3) either generate or inhibit affect which influences behavior--the alcoholic listening to temperance sermons each day, and 4) develop or define a chain of choices leading to long rage goals, involving behavioral theory, theory of bargaining. side betting. Ainslie suggests that when these are not used, when specious alternatives are routinely preferred, people will appear to others to be showing self-injurious behavior. It is doubtful that these four methods are used by the sociopathic (DSM IV), or modeled or complied with in the type of environment producing sociopathic individuals. Additionally, in the disorganized and unpredictable households described above, it may well be adaptive to grasp at immediate rewards rather than forestall.
Since the individual is being conditioned to seek climactic resolution, and has been rewarded with climactic stimulation, eventually the motive to seek sensation may influence behavior without being analyzed--it is truly experienced as a needs state. As cognitive abilities develop, however, substance abuse as a quick, powerful relief for this need may be specifically recognized (or created) using cognitive paths (involving, for example, schema and expectancies). The cognitive content may not delineate “ a specific way to transform or relieve ‘suboptimal’ internal needs states” but the human cognitive aptitude for successful problem solving may lead to a schema where self-medicating with substances is considered quite effective. Just as certain foods are associated with good emotional times and verbal reward in particular families or cultures, and certain ways of telling a joke are connected to emotional happiness or external reward or biological relief, so too can the ability and finally the inclination to seek, even produce, climactic sensational events be conditioned as a good, desirable thing for the organism.
However, it is not just on the biological or on the observable level of conditioning and reward that sensation seeking in the sociopath becomes imperative. The formation of one’s basic personality structure--certainly the most subtle, perhaps the least tangible level of observation--will also favor a need for sensation seeking, when basic principles of sociopathic family dynamics are considered. When biological, learning, and psychodynamic systems reinforce each other in producing a basic need, it would appear to be a virtually unquenchable needs state. Substance use may prove the easiest and most practical way to deal with this state.
Psychodynamic Conflict and Sensation Seeking in the Sociopath
The following paragraph is summarized from Ainslie (1984), who outlines a psychodynamic view of behavior which seems to have both voluntary and involuntary motivation. When this view is applied to sensation seeking, in the sociopathic personality, it appears to parallel the data mentioned above.
Freud suggested that behavior could be motivated by unconscious incentives. Since the individual is not aware of the basis of his motives, the behavior is experienced as not willful but almost outside of the self; that is “:ego-alien” (subjectively involuntary).Yet at the same time this behavior is in fact motivated and therefore goal directed. Actual behavior in this model depends on the depth of the unconsciousness of the motivation, and is remedied by lifting the defensive processes which lead to the repression of the original motivation. All motivated behavior in the perfectly healthy, conscious individual will be experienced as voluntary.
How, according to psychodynamic theory,
would the motivation toward climactic sensation seeking form? An early work (Children Who Hate) by Fritz Redle suggested that one key process in the formation of the sociopathic personality was the lack of identification with a father figure. This lack produced not only a poorly developed superego, but also a poorly developed ego. Freud posited that the superego develops through internalizing others’ demands, particularly parents; thus if there are few demands to be met, via an antisocial or neglectful parent, the chance for good superego formation is lost. Ainslie (1984) states that children form a superego due to the need for impulse control but that generally the parents are the models of how to do this-- “Parents who most interfere with good superego formation will be those who either make internal impulse control less necessary by their willingness to manipulate their children’s motives directly, or those who leave children to their own impulse -controlling devices too early (p. 62).
If we imagine one left to manage living in the world with a poorly developed superego and a severely incomplete ego, we see someone who is id-driven. According to Freud, one driven by the id’s pleasure principle would be “seductive, myopic, irrational, failing to delay gratification, and... most generally, impulsive” (Ainslie, 1984; p. 53). Hott (1979) describes the antisocial character as
“one who is compulsively, chronically driven to...his or her own well-being, without conscious conflict, control, anxiety, guilt, knowledge, or concern about these actions...These chronically ill, compulsive antisocial characters are extremely callus, seek immediate gratification and pleasure, and lack the potential to withstand normal human frustrations...They lack social judgments and utilize verbal rationalizations at will. They are convinced that their actions are reasonable and warranted, despite repeated evidence to the contrary.(p. 237)
Ainslie states that “the more a motive arises without concrete explanation, the more the person’s response will be perceived as involuntary” (p. 48).
It is necessary to consider at least these three perspectives to hypothesize an irresistible needs state for sensation seeking in the sociopath. Many individuals may experience what appear to be involuntary motives or needs; yet the majority are able to keep these within non-dangerous or non-criminal levels. Many individuals may be found to have biological substrates craving stimulation. Many individuals have had substance use modeled for them, even paired with reward. But when lack of ego and superego (by whatever terms these are named) are lacking, and substance use has been modeled and rewarded and conditioned as a good thing, and there is an underlying, perhaps uncomfortable biological need for stimulation, and one is in a culture where substances are readily available and the idea of instant medicinal relief is ingrained into the social consciousness--perhaps then the need for substances as a logical end to a drive is understandable. Schuster (1976) stated that psychodynamic, social, and biological factors all synthesize into “transforming uneducated minority youth into the type of psychopath representative of the vast majority of inmates and residents in correctional and rehabilitative settings”. These factors may also explain why our prisons are now mostly full of substance users--much as they would be full of “feeders” if food was illegal, or “breeders” in a brave new world.
One way to test this hypothesis would be to interrupt the needs state, if it truly exists. If the homeostatic loop is restored to equilibrium, there is no need to seek relief. A refractory period should ensue, during which concomitants of high levels of sensation seeking in the sociopath--anger, impulsiveness, criminality, selfishness, lack of empathy, etc., --should be reduced and which may be measured with psychological tests. In a clinical intervention, actual substance use could be measured.
Flooding subjects with climactic stimulation should serve to lessen or eliminate, for a time, the need for relief, and hence, the need to use substances.
An experimental manipulation might use participants high and low in sociopathy; stimulation might involve auditory and visual stimuli, utilizing human events with a building of stimulation expectancy, and a climactic resolution, such as is found in certain movie scenes
Vicarious stimulation has been shown to have an effect on biological states (Craig, 1968), even when using only minimal observational cues, such as the model’s heart rate (Kravetz, 1974). When vicarious stimuli is strong, the magnitude of biological effects can equal that of direct stimulation (Yamaguchi, Harano, & Egawa, 1978). One might hypothesize that those high in sociopathy who receive 1) mild or 2) moderate, non-climactic stimulation to 1) maintain or 2) increase in levels of the dependent variable(s).
If the intervention is successful in reducing sensation seeking in the sociopath, we will need to create large auditoriums showing continuous thrilling footage; we will need to send conduct disordered children to school early for an hour of audio-video stimulation; we will create a new type of addict but they won’t be on the streets...
Article: Mary K. Todd, 1998, University of South Florida
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Copyright: Article: Mary K. Todd, 1998, University of South FLorida