The Role of Sensation Seeking in Violent Armed Group Participation

Terrorism & Political Violence, Forthcoming

26 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2017

See all articles by Enzo Nussio

Enzo Nussio

Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich

Date Written: March 13, 2017


An important puzzle in the study of political violence is why individuals risk their life fighting for a public good, when they can free-ride and enjoy the same benefits if others take the risk. This logic is particularly important to rationalist theories, which view risk as an inherent cost to violent armed group participation – which has to be offset by selective incentives, peer pressure or coercion. This perspective has widely contributed to the understanding of violent conflict, but ignores key insights from psychology. What if risk is not a cost and instead attractive? In this article, I argue that people with a sensation seeking personality – interested in novel and intense experience and willing to accept risk for the sake of it – are more likely to join armed groups. Preliminary survey evidence comparing voluntarily and forcibly recruited members of Colombian armed groups supports my argument. The re-interpretation of a series of existing studies on Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary fighters illustrates the pervasiveness and varying manifestations of sensation seeking. Personality traits are an under-recognized ingredient in the process of joining armed groups and complement our current understanding, which is mainly determined by contextual conditions and situational motivations.

Keywords: Risk, Non-State Armed Groups, Colombia, Personality, Sensation Seeking, Conflict, Motivations, Political Violence, Insurgency, Paramilitary

Suggested Citation

Nussio, Enzo, The Role of Sensation Seeking in Violent Armed Group Participation (March 13, 2017). Terrorism & Political Violence, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Enzo Nussio (Contact Author)

Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich ( email )

Haldeneggsteig 4
Zurich, Zurich 8006

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