Risk-Taking and Sensation Seeking in Military Contexts: A Literature Review

Research and Data
Author(s): Gunnar Breivik, Trond Svela Sand, and Anders McD Sookermany
Year Published: 2019


The research is based on a literature review of studies covering risk-taking and sensation seeking within military contexts over a time span of 3 decades from 1983 to 2015. Literature was gathered through a four-stage search procedure identifying 25 studies of risk-taking and 16 studies of sensation seeking altogether.


Quantitative Data Highlights

  • 60% or more of the variance in sensation seeking is genetically determined.


Risk Factors

  • Identifying as a man.
  • Lower sensation seeking in relation to long-term adjustments.
  • High sensation seekers are drawn to risky gambling behavior.


Protective Factors

  • Age.
  • Decorated war veterans.
  • Volunteering for the military.


Qualitative Data Highlights

  • Decorated war veterans had higher sensation seeking scores and had lower levels of war-related intrusion, avoidance tendencies, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
  • Some specific military positions are attractive to high sensation seekers.
Risk Perception
  • A skeptical view of safety was associated with a higher sense of personal invincibility, and together with lack of deliberation predicted variations in danger-seeking scores.
  • Several factors such as level of exposure, emotional states, as well as organizational context and culture, may affect assessment and communication of risk.
  • Sociodemographic background, personality factors, and general mind-set seem to influence soldiers’ risk behavior and choice of career.
  • Age
    • The results showed that negative value on safety and risk propensity decreased with age.
  • Sex
    • Men had a more skeptical view of safety measures and a higher risk propensity than women.
  • Men who had greater academic abilities were more likely to go to college. Thereby, they avoided military service and the possibility of serving in a combat occupation.
  • On the demand side, the armed forces were more likely to exclude men with lower academic abilities. But they were also more likely to assign such men to combat occupations when they had entered the military system. There was, thus, an overrepresentation of men with lower academic abilities among soldiers and especially in combat occupations.
  • Volunteers reported greater stress tolerance, concern for others, extraversion, and self-confidence than the non-volunteers.
  • Volunteers reported greater psychological fitness for military missions and greater hardiness during the military service compared with the non-volunteers.
High Sensation Seekers
  • Are drawn to gambling, prefer higher odds, and bet more in some types of games.
  • Are under stimulated but have a strong reward system.
  • They experiment more with drugs, and they also seek stimulation in drinking, smoking, and sexual activities.
Relevance to war situations, high sensation seekers:
  • Perceived unpredictable and chaotic situations as more manageable
  • Are welcomed in situations such as special operations with risk or in situations where innovations and flexibility are important factors.
  • React with persistent curiosity to new and unusual stimuli and are attracted to active exploration of the environment.
  • Appraise situations as less risky than low sensation seekers, and
  • They experience less anxiety and more positive feelings in response to situations with risk.
Challenges of Sensation Seeking
  • Soldiers wanted more adventure and challenge after deployment as compared with before.
  • Along the line of addiction, soldiers increase their tolerance levels to strong stimulations by being exposed to danger.
  • Soldiers who were lower in Sensation Seeking were more inclined to seek situations with strong sensations after deployment, in contrast with the higher sensation seeking soldiers.



  • The research is both small in volume and scattered when it comes to the use of theories, methods, and samples of military personnel.



  • An important and positive aspect of leadership may include the willingness to expose oneself to danger in potentially life-threatening situations.
  • The results highlight the importance of balanced leadership and a distinction between necessary and unnecessary risk-taking in military contexts.
  • Sensation seeking played an important role in performance during war as well as in subsequent long-term adjustment.



  • Aviator risk management training programs are needed to modify attitudes and risk perception, especially in older and experienced pilots and instructors who are more exposed to risky flying.
  • A more contextualized understanding of what risk, safety, and accidents mean in organizational life is needed.
  • Future research needs to look into whether training can help to modify perceived external locus of control and attitudes to potentially reduce errors.
  • Further studies are needed to examine the interplay between soldier characteristics, risk management culture, and leadership behavior during training and deployment.




Read Full Research Article


Breivik, G., Sand, T. S., & Sookermany, A. M. (2019). Risk-Taking and Sensation Seeking in Military Contexts: A Literature Review. SAGE Open, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244018824498

Further Reading