The Psychology of Thrill-Seeking...A GSTA Interview with Dr. Kenneth Carter

20 Apr 2020 10:10 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

GSTA Blog co-editors Raoul Roberts and Sarah Frantz recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Kenneth Carter, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University, about his 2020 NITOP Conference session titled Psychology in Context: The Psychology of Thrill-Seeking. Dr. Carter also discussed his instructional approach and shared his insights on how teaching psychology in the undergraduate classroom compares to disseminating the same knowledge in a public forum like TED or NPR.

What were some of the highlights for you at NITOP?  

NITOP  is probably one of my favorite annual conferences to go to, and I try to get there every time I can. I had such an amazing time. I was excited to get the invitation to do a talk at NITOP because getting people who teach psychology together to talk about teaching is one of the most amazing things. I was even more excited when I was asked to be on the organizing committee of NITOP, so I'll start working on that this year. People who have never been to NITOP should go; it is a wonderful experience. You meet many dynamic people and learn new techniques which you can incorporate into your teaching instantly.

According to Rate My Professors, 100% of your students would take your class again. You have taught Intro Psych – how do you incorporate the psychology of sensation seeking into that course? 

So, I teach a lot of Introductory Psychology and a lot of times Introductory Psychology feels like a stream of different kinds of topics that are really disconnected for students. It just feels like, "Okay, today we're going to talk about this and today we're talking about this." And there's not really a way to connect them together. So, one of the things I've been doing for a while is to group strands of ideas together into central stream. A central stream can either be four different lectures, or a week, or a whole section of a course. One of the ways to organize a central stream is to find a topic that students find interesting, and you can link the topics that you're normally going to talk about to that theme, thereby giving the students something to which they can hang those ideas. So, in my class, since I've been researching thrill seeking, I talk about thrill-seeking in terms of research design, in terms of personality theories, in terms of four or five different topics that I connect together to answer the question, "why do people do these kinds of things?" It provides a great way to talk about personality theories in a way that we don't normally talk about them.

Do you adapt sensation-seeking-related activities for use in your classroom? If so, can you describe one such activity and the typical responses you get from students? 

I would show students a video of a thrill seeker – somebody on a slackline or someone jumping off a cliff doing wingsuit flying. Then I would ask the question, "So, why do you think this person does this?" I did this at NITOP with a lot of psychology faculty there, and they raised all these different ideas and theories of personality that we teach. So, rather than just march through the theories of personality in a decontextualized way, the thrill-seeker video provides context for the lesson. We come up with theories in order to solve a problem, so the idea is to give the students a problem to solve. Why would a person jump off a cliff in a squirrel suit? Why would a person walk across a slackline in high heels? First, stimulate their imagination and their curiosity, then use psychology for what it's for, which is to solve problems.

Are you a sensation seeker?

I am not. I'm the opposite. So, Zuckerman's sensation seeking questionnaire  goes from zero to 40 with higher numbers meaning higher sensation seeking. And when I took it, I scored an eight out of 40, so I am low on the scale. I stumbled across it when I was thinking about writing a book about people who are called chaos junkies. There are people out there that are chaotic and I  wasn't sure why they were being chaotic, so I was going to write a book about helping people be more organized and less chaotic. Then I came across this research – there have been four or five academic books about sensation seeking and 50-70 different research articles; however, before my book , nobody had written an easy-to-understand book about what I think is a very fascinating psychological concept.

Is there something special about sensation seekers that impacts their learning and development as college students? Say, you have college students who are high on the Zuckerman's scale, what about that student makes them more engaged in this otherwise dry topic?

Yeah, I think part of it is that people want to understand themselves. A lot of high sensation seekers say they feel really misunderstood because the number one thing that people ask is, do they have a death wish? Do they want to kill themselves by doing these things? But one of the challenges can be that some sensation seekers, one of the scales looks at their boredom susceptibility and that some of them can get bored relatively easily. So, you want to find ways to make sure to keep them engaged. In fact, I think one of the things that's tough about our society in general is that we don't necessarily have to be bored that often, because we have access to all of the information that we could possibly absorb right in our hands a lot of the time. And so, keeping students engaged, keeping them connected, can be a challenge sometimes. Some faculty want to do that by making sure they're as entertaining as possible. Part of what I do is try to pique their curiosity, you know? And so, I feel like if they're engaged in terms of being curious about getting to the bottom of the answer, they're going to want the tools that they need to get to the answer. And so sometimes it's packing that normally dry stuff in a bigger question. And I tell my students that research is a tool and it's the tool to find out those big answers that we're all looking for. That people don't build houses because they like using hammers, they build houses because they want the house. And so, what is your house? What do you want to know about? What do you want to build? And so, I try to pique their curiosity by giving them big questions and that goes back to the idea of those central themes that I try to build into courses, so it doesn't feel so disconnected from their actual lives.

Can you tell us about some of your past work and about any current research on which you are working?

I have this idea that there’s all of this amazing research that's been done that, for the average everyday person, is sort of trapped in academic books and journals. And so, I really like writing these translation pieces to help people understand the cool stuff that we do as psychologists. And I feel like that's part of our job as psychologists. There are people out there that are doing original research, which is amazing, but there are also people that can be the storytellers, to connect that research to the everyday person.  I’ve talked about the psychology of thrill seeking on NPR and so it's really a great way to be able to connect people with the real science of psychology. And right now I'm working on two textbooks—a Psychopathology textbook and an Introductory Psychology textbook. And it's the same sort of thing. It's translation work, making sure that students understand the concepts in a broad way. I have an idea for another book that I'm thinking about once I wrap these things up. But a lot of my work is trying to find those connections in the things that other people have done, but really telling the story of their work in a broader way. It's been exciting for me and I think it really shines a different kind of light on the scholarship that other people have done. And I just hope I'm getting it right when I tell their stories.

You have purposely sought out forums like TED, NPR, and the South by Southwest festival to reach the broader public. Is this something that you were just drawn into by chance or was this part of your mandate going into psychology?

A little bit of both. I feel like I do a lot of training in my main job at Oxford College of Emory. I teach a lot of undergraduates and so I feel like you learn about the concept that people call edutainment, right? How to make somewhat dull things kind of interesting. But I also conduct a lot of training for clinical psychologists: I teach them how to understand medications, and that can also be kind of dry. I realized that there's a way that I can teach to a class of students, but there are other people that might really like to understand these concepts, and that they are fascinated by thrill seekers, they're fascinated by psychology, they want to read the books that I want to read—books about why people do the things they do. So, I've been delighted that people invite me to speak to them about these concepts. It's been a fun experience.


Dr. Kenneth Carter is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Oxford College of Emory University. He has published in both academic and lay publications, translating psychology research into engaging everyday language. His articles have been published in magazines such as Psychology Today and Women’s Health, and he has appeared on news programs such as NPR’s ShortWave and NBC’s Today show. The psychology of thrill-seeking is the current focus of Dr. Carter’s research. He has delivered a TEDx talk on thrill-seekers. His most recent book is Buzz!: Inside the Minds of Thrill-Seekers, Daredevils, and Adrenaline Junkies (Cambridge University Press). When not teaching, speaking, or writing, Dr. Carter prefers reading and relaxing on the beach to wingsuit flying or BASE jumping.

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