Why Do We Like to Be Scared?

From haunted houses to Friday the 13th movies, we love to scare ourselves silly. For this special Halloween edition of the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen answers the question: Why do we enjoy being scared?

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #43

Reason #3: Sensation-Seekers Love a Thrill

We all know someone - or are someone - who gets bored easily and needs a lot of stimulation to stay happy and engaged.  Dr. Marvin Zuckerman of the University of Delaware has been studying these folks since the 1960s.  He coined the term sensation seeking - a personality trait defined by searching out activities or sensations that are “varied, novel, complex, and intense.”  

Dr. Zuckerman theorizes that sensation-seekers have 4 core characteristics:

  1. They are thrill-seekers. They search out adventures that involve speed and danger, like hang gliding, scuba diving, or skydiving.  

  2. They are experience-seekers. They collect novel, singular  experiences, like hanging out with a non-conformist crowd or traveling to unconventional places (no Carribbean cruises for them).   

  3. They are uninhibited, which can sometimes get them into trouble.  Disinhibition might mean fun, crazy times, but may sometimes cross the line into infidelity or substance abuse.  

  4. They are susceptible to boredom. They get restless with routine and can’t stand feeling tied down.  They hate seeing a movie they’ve seen before and would be miserable at an uptight dinner party.

Reason #4:  Scary Situations Can Lead to Bonding

About 15 years ago, Dr. Shelley Taylor of UCLA proposed an alternative to the fight or flight model which she called “tend and befriend.”  She noted that from rats to monkeys to humans, some individuals - often but not always females- respond to times of stress by nurturing and protecting their children (tend) or reaching out for social support (befriend).  This might be part of what makes military recruits bond during basic training or pre-med study groups feel an alliance as they prep for the MCAT.

The tend and befriend response is thought to arise, in part, from the brew of hormones and neurotransmitters that get released with stress or fear.  One of these, oxytocin, is the same bonding hormone released during breastfeeding or cuddling.  

This Halloween, take advantage of the tend and befriend response by bonding with your friends during a Saw movie or snuggling with your crush after that scary haunted house visit.


That's all for today. Be sure to sign up for the forthcoming Savvy Psychologist newsletter here and be one of the first to get exclusive tips delivered straight to your inbox!


Taylor, S.E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B.P., Gruenewald, T.L., Gurung, R.A.R. & Updegraff, J.A. (2000).  Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight.  Psychological Review, 107, 411-429.                                                                

Zald, D.H., Cowan, R.L., Riccardi, P. et al. (2008).  Midbrain dopamine receptor availability is inversely associated with novelty-seeking traits in humans.  The Journal of Neuroscience, 28, 14372-8.

Zuckerman, M.  (2007).  The Sensation Seeking Scale V (SSS-V): Still reliable and valid.  Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 1303-1305.

Zuckerman, M. (2009).  “Chapter 31: Sensation seeking.”  In, Leary, M.R. & Hoyle, R.H. Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior.  New York: The Guilford Press..

Skydiving and scared woman images courtesy of Shutterstock.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.