High Sensitivity – The Research

The highly sensitive personality trait was first described by Carl Jung in 1913

  • Carl Jung 1913, para. 398,“This excessive sensitiveness very often brings an enrichment of the personality. . . . Only, when difficult and unusual situations arise, the advantage frequently turns into a very great disadvantage, since calm consideration is then disturbed by untimely affects. Nothing could be more mistaken, though, than to regard this excessive sensitiveness as in itself a pathological character component. If that were really so, we should have to rate about one quarter of humanity as pathological.”


Below is a summary of more recent findings in relation to the personality trait of high sensitivity, known in scientific terms as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS).

  • Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) commonly referred to as high sensitivity,  is an innate, inherited personality trait found in about 15-20% of human population as well as in over 100 non-human species (Aron, 1991; Acevedo, Aron, Aron et la., 2014).


  •  Sensory processing sensitivity is one of two equally valid strategies that evolved for promoting survival of the species; pause, observe and think before acting, and is associated with having a strong behavioural inhibition system (BIS) (Aron and Aron 1997; Wolf et al. 2008). The other strategy being to act quickly and boldly and is associated with a strong behavioural activations system (BAS).


  • SPS is characterised by increased sensitivity and responsiveness to environmental and social stimuli, and associated with significantly greater activation in brain areas involved in higher-order visual processing, empathy (mirror neurons),  and awareness (the insula – sometimes called the ‘seat of consciousness’) (Jagiellowicz, Aron, et al., 2010; Acevedo, Aron, Aron et la., 2014). http://hsperson.com/pdf/The_highly_sensitive_brain_%20an_fMRI_study.pdf


  • There is recent clear evidence for SPS being a categorical variable, that is to say that people do or do not have the high sensitivity trait. (Borries
 & Ostendorf, 2012). ‘Boldly spoken: HSPs {Highly Sensitive Persons} exist, forming an independent group of people who are qualitatively distinct from all the others concerning their way to perceive and process stimuli’.


  •  SPS is associated with increased neural activation in response to happy and sad faces (Acevedo et al., 2010).


  • High sensitivity is not the same as shyness or introversion. 30% of highly sensitive people are extraverts (Aron, 1991).


  • The trait is visible from birth and found in equal numbers of men and women (Aron, 1991).


  • SPS is associated with the 5-HTTLPR short/short genotype in the serotonin transporter system (Licht, Mortensen, Knudsen, 2011) and 10 polymorphisms within the dopamine system (Chen et al., 2011).


  • SPS is associated with higher base cortisol levels and longer times to return to base levels after stress (Kagan et la, 1987, Gunner et la, 1996, Flinn, 2000, Fox et la, 2005).


  • Highly sensitive children are more prone to developing depression and anxiety in adulthood if they have experienced a troubled or emotionally invalidating childhood (Aron, 1991).


  • Highly sensitive children are more at risk of developing Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) in adulthood if repeatedly invalidated during their childhood (M. Lineham, 1997).


Many mistakenly believe that being highly sensitive is only about being highly vulnerable, but this is not correct.

  • A converging body of research including the differential-susceptibility hypothesis (Belsky, 1997a, 2005; Belsky, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & van IJzendoorn, 2007; Belsky & Pluess, 2009), and Boyce and Ellis’s (2005) biological-sensitivity-to-context thesis points towards the hypothesis that high sensitivity is more accurately about being more sensitive, responsive or having a greater degree of plasticity to an environment in general, than having a predisposition to negative affect only.


  • Therefore negative environments lead to more negative outcomes for those with the trait, and positive environments or interventions lead to more positive outcomes for those with the trait (Aron et al, 2011).


  • Most recently the trait has been associated with something called “Vantage Sensitivity” which is defined as having increased sensitivity to supportive but not to adverse environmental conditions (Pluess & Belsky 2012).


  • In the workplace, SPS was found to be positively correlated with alienation, negative affect (low mood and anxiety) and the work stress subscales of work displeasure and need for recovery, and negatively correlated with sense of coherence, comprehensibility, self-efficacy, manageability and meaningfulness (Evers, Rasche, and Schabracq, 2008).


  • HSPs were found to be more vulnerable to workplace environmental stressors but also more responsive to positive conditions, and were rated as the best performers by their managers (Shrivastava, 2011).


High sensitivity and the impact of culture

  • Highly sensitive  children in Canada were found to be more frequently taunted and teased where as sensitive children in China were considered favourably, often selected as class leaders (in Mandarin, shy = ‘guai’ – ‘good/ well-behaved’;  sensitive = ‘dong-shai’ – ‘has understanding’), (Chen & la, 1992).


  • Children aged 9-18 years with the SPS trait were found to be significantly more at risk of being bullied than those without. (Ann-Sophie Depamelaere Major: Clinical Psychology Academic Year: 2009 – 2010, Ghent University, Belgium).