WhAt Is Arousal Theory?


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Arousal Theory
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TheArousal-Seeking Behavioral Theory has been popular in aspects of bothpsychology and sociology. It was originated by Lindsey and furtherresearched by many other psychologists and sociologists. This theorystates that “for a variety of genetic and environmental reasons, somepeople’s brain functions differently in response to environmentalstimuli” (Lee, 1996). According to Lee, every person tries to reach anoptimal level of arousal from the environment and too littlestimulation causes a person to be bored while too much stimulationcauses anxiety. Anxiety would lead to sensation seeking. At the centerof this theory lies the fact that sensation seekers are morebiologically and environmentally prone to engage in deviant activitiesand to take illicit drugs. According to research done by Miles (2001),sensation seeking is a great predictor of drug use and abuse, becausethose who are sensation seekers also tend to be risk takers. Accordingto this theory, obtaining thrills and a demonstration of competence arethe main crime motivators, usually with little to no economic gain(Katz, 1988). Zuckerman defined sensation seeking as a “term defined bythe seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations andexperiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, andfinancial risks for the sake of such experience”, so, those who aresensation seekers are more willing to participate in risky behavior andare more impulsive (1994). A twin study performed by Donna Miles,Marianne Van Den Bree, Anne Gupman, and other researchers showed thatwhile genetic factors had a strong influence in some personalitytraits, such as risk-taking, environmental and family factors had agreat influence on others, such as sexual promiscuity; for marijuanause, environmental and genetic factors have proven to be equallyimportant (2001).Personality traits such as thrill seeking and impulsivity vs.Self control can now be measured by many methods. The most popularmethod to measure these traits are the CPI (California PsychologicalInventory), Zuckerman’s SSS(Sensation Seeking Scales) and the MMPI(Minessota Multiphasic Personality Index). The CPI scale has been foundto be very relevant when measuring personality traits such asimpulsivity. “[The CPI scale] is a subset of true/false items ,agree/disagree items and forced choice items, and it’s designed tomeasure variation in self-regulation, self-control, and level ofimpulsivity and self-centered-ness. “ People who obtain a high score onthe CPI are considered to be aggressive and impulsive, and to havelittle to no control over their behavior. The CPI scale is usually usedbecause of its long history of application, and because of thediversity of audiences to which the test has been administered to (Wood& Cochran et al., 1995). Zuckerman’s SSS scale has also been veryhelpful in pointing out sensation seekers. Individuals who score highon the SSS are more likely to be oriented towards body sensations, tobe more extroverted, impulsive, antisocial, and less anxious (Newcomb& McGee, 1991).Impulsivity is one of the most important aspects of theArousal-Seeking Behavioral Theory, because criminologists believe thatimpulsivity warrants the most research attention of all psychologicalfactors implicated in juvenile delinquency and crime.    Inpulsiveness
refers to the inability or unwillingness of a person to think of theconsequences of their behavior before making a decision to act (orhaving time to make their decision). It is simply a lack ofpremeditation. A person who is impulsive may lack the ability tocorrectly process cognitive information (for example, finish a job orpaper, easily bored). Impulsive-ness also plays a huge role in assessingdifferent forms of psychopathology. Many researchers see  Impulsive-ness asa major component of psychotic ism and anti-social personality disorders(Lynam & Miller, 2004).Some researchers argue that even though sensation seeking iscaused by both genetic and environmental factors, the main cause forsuch behavior are low levels of platelet monoamine oxidase (MAO)activity in the brain. Brain chemistry and brain structure play animportant role, it is argued that everybody’s brain is different andthat some people’s brains have more nerve cells and alterations thanothers (Katz, 1988). According to research done on a male criminalpopulation in Sweden, many criminal offenders who are have committeddangerous and violent crimes and are diagnosed as psychopaths, have lowlevels of platelet MAO activity in their brain. There are two types ofthe enzyme MAO; MAO-A is present in the human brain and in the bloodplatelets while MAO-B is only present in blood platelets. Low MAOactivity, usually combined with personality traits such asimpulsiveness, monotony avoidance and sensation seeking tend to highlycorrelate with criminal behavior and it can cause a “rehabilitated”person to relapse and reoffend after they are released from prison.Researchers also argue that both high and low platelet monoamineoxidase activity can cause different forms of deviance; people with ahigh amount of MAO activity can be categorized as anxiety-relateddisordered and having schizoid personality traits(Longato-Stadler, afKlinteberg et al., 2002). In their research, Longato-Stadler et al.State that the levels of MAO activity remain stable throughout anindividual’s lifetime, regardless of their present clinical orpsychological states. More recently, they have been able to test thisbiological part of the theory due to advances in technology; deviceslike the EEG (Electroencephalograph) have been successful at measuringdifferent arousal levels in parts of the brain.While some researchers believe that sensation seeking andimpulsive behavior are more biological than environmental, othersbelieve that these two personality traits are more likely to becongruent with learning and cognitive processes.(Wood & Cochran,1995). Wood and Cochran proposed that people who tend to engage insubstance use and deviant/delinquent behavior, do so because ofinternal motivations and societal pressures. They also propose thatdelinquent behavior is produced in the seeking of pleasure andimmediate gratification, usually with no regards for futureconsequences or punishments. They believe that such delinquent behavioras vandalizing, drug use, joyriding, arson, and fighting stem fromhaving “low self control” rather than anything else because thosebehaviors and forms of delinquency do not really provide an economic ormaterial gain for the offender. There are, however, many non-economicreinforcements that reward delinquent behavior, such as the thrill andexcitement and respect from peers (who are probably alsodelinquent)(1995). These researchers also argue that people who aresensation seekers and thrill seekers can also have a positive societaloutcome, such as creativity and are usually adventurous. Those peoplemay choose more socially approved forms of stimulation such astraveling, skydiving and bungee jumping to receive the same type ofimmediate gratification as delinquents do. Arguments about environmentvs. Biology also arise when trying to account for gratuitous andrepetitive behavior (that is, any seeking of stimulation beyond theinitial deviance) and that is where the Learning Theory is introducedto join the Arousal Theory; behaviors may continue due to thepleasurable sensations they receive each time a task is performed. Forexample, a person who is taking drugs might initially participate forthe thrill and excitement of the behavior, but they will continue thebehavior because of the instant pleasure that they receive due to thepharmacological effects of the drug they are taking. Researchers inthis experiment have concluded that even though thrill seeking andimpulsivity are likely to cause the initial act of deviance, immediategratification and pleasurable sensations work to maintain and reinforcehabitual delinquency Wood, Cochran et al, 1995). Even though the arousal theory can explain different types ofdeviant behavior, it appears to best explain drug, alcohol or tobaccouse. Researchers have found strong correlations with personality traitsthat include sensation seeking, impulsiveness and extraversion to drugabuse. This theory can distinguish those people who seek immediategratification and the physiological stimulation that comes withconsuming drugs. Wood, Cochran et al. Researched the prevalence of drugabuse amongst high school students and the correlation drug abuse hadwith sensation seeking personality types. Their results show that amongthose respondents, most had admitted to the use of drugs. The maincategory of rationalization was that the participants did it for thethrills, excitement, fun or simply to get away with it. Therationalizations that followed this main reason, were the followingthree categories 2) social/peer pressure, 3)”it felt good”, and 4)other (1995). Family and twin studies show that drug use is influencedequally by both genetic influences and environmental influences (suchas being raised by the same parents, living in the same neighborhoodand sharing the same friends). The result of their research was asfollows: 31% of the variance for marijuana use was explained by geneticfactors, 47% by familial factors, and 22% was explained by non-familialenvironmental factors (Miles et. Al, 2001). Further research done byNewcomb and McGee shows that those subjects who score high insensation-seeking as teenagers and adolescents continue to use illicitdrugs into early adulthood (1991)Gender differences in sensation seeking are apparent. Accordingto a study performed by Newcomb and McGee, male subjects were morelikely than female subjects to exhibit all different types ofdelinquent and deviant behavior that can be attested by the ArousalTheory. These researchers conducted a longitudinal study of both maleand female subjects and their rates of deviance at three differentstages of development; after the ninth year of research, it wasapparent that male subjects had higher scores in the thrill andadventure seeking, and the disinhibition subscales of the SSS, whilewomen had a higher scores in the experience seeking subscale of theSSS.Like every other theory, the Arousal Theory of crime has itsstrengths and its weaknesses. Some of the strengths of this theory arethe fact that it can help predict delinquency in subjects who scorehigh on sensation seeking and impulsiveness and the fact that it canattest and help explain drug use and abuse. Some of the main weaknessesof this theory are: That there has been no direct and specific testingof the Arousal theory, and that the relationship between crime andthrills is basically unknown; the theory cannot explain why some peoplechoose deviant and delinquent forms of sensation seeking and somechoose more culturally accepted and approved forms of stimulation(Woodand Cochran, 1995); third and last, this theory has not really exploredthrill seeking behavior and impulsiveness-related deviance intoadulthood and old age, and more research needs to be done with olderparticipants (Newcomb & McGee, 1991).

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