Highly sensitive person
- This article is about the personality trait. For the book by Elaine Aron, go to The Highly Sensitive Person (book).
A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness as Carl Jung originally coined it). According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who compose of about a fifth of the population (equal numbers in men and women), may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems. This is a specific trait, with key consequences for how we view people, that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, social phobia and innate fearfulness, and introversion. The trait is measured using the HSP Scale, which has been demonstrated to have both internal and external validity. Although the term is primarily used to describe humans, something similar to the trait is present in over 100 other species.
The term "highly sensitive person" (HSP) was coined by Dr. Elaine N. Aron in 1996, and the name is gaining popularity because it presents the trait in a positive light. It posits that shyness, inhibition, and fearfulness, terms often used to describe some HSPs, may or may not be acquired by them, depending entirely on environmental stressors. A number of books have been written on the topic using this term, mainly The Highly Sensitive Person, The Highly Sensitive Child, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, and The Highly Sensitive Person Workbook by Elaine Aron; The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide, The Highly Sensitive Person's Companion, and The Strong, Sensitive Boy by Ted Zeff, PhD.; and the memoir Help Is On Its Way by Jenna Forrest.
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The approach adopted by Aron and colleagues questions the role of notions such as "shyness" in explaining basic differences in behavior that are encountered in many species, including humans. As opposed to shyness, which is best thought of a learned fear of social judgment, but often confused with an innate trait that would have no evolutionary advantage if it were nothing but fearfulness, the trait of high sensitivity is considered a basic, evolutionarily conserved trait with survival advantages in itself. Aron was partly drawn to this conclusion by the early work on normal infant temperament variations, including low sensory threshold, and a shy-bold continuum described in animal species.   In both cases, the trait is normal and advantageous in enough circumstances for it to persist. Further, certainly infants with this and other innate traits do grow up and continue to be influenced by their innate temperaments. However, research on adults tends to focus more on observable behavior differences in adulthood, such as introversion (more reserved and less outspoken in groups) and neuroticism (being anxious or depressed), without considering their potential origins as interactions of environment and temperament. In fact, some people born with the trait of sensitivity may appear introverted or neurotic, but others do not, depending on environmental factors. (And of course some introverts and neurotics are not highly sensitive.) This suggests that sensitivity is the more basic, innate trait that is often the origin of these others.
Faced with this apparent misnaming of a basic survival strategy, Aron and colleagues developed the notion of high sensitivity or sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). They do not feel genes come with some name on them, so that high sensitivity is the only or even best name for the trait. But studying it by using the HSP Scale, developed by first interviewing people who saw themselves as "highly sensitive," has resulted in a growing body of interesting research, using a variety of methods (genetics, functional magnetic resonance imaging, experiments, and surveys), and obtaining results equal to or stronger than those found with the typical traits used to study adult personality.
The research on sensory-processing sensitivity is best summarized in Aron, Aron, & Jagiellowicz. They explain how their theory of sensory processing sensitivity (the scientific term for the trait) builds on Eysenck's views on introversion and arousal and Gray's work on the behavioral inhibition system (BIS; although the idea that the BIS is equivalent to a system leading to fearful or withdrawing behaviors has been repudiated by Gray, who reconceptualized it as a system that allows pausing to check before acting on both threats and opportunities), Gray’s ideas were adopted by Jerome Kagan in his description of inhibition in children. Finally there is the tradition of Thomas & Chess resulting in the work by Evans & Rothbart on Orienting Sensitivity. As a large body of research now suggests that sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) is innate and found in about 15–20% of humans and is characterized by a greater depth of processing of sensory input, leading to a greater awareness of subtleties along with the probably necessary result of becoming more overaroused by levels of sensory stimulation that do not bother others.
The reason for the consistently low percentage (about 15–20%) of sensitive individuals in a population appears to be due to its negative frequency-dependent selection, in that if too many inherited the trait, it would be of no value (e.g., if too many know a certain shortcut around a traffic jam, the shortcut is not useful to anyone.)
Recent research in developmental psychology provides further evidence that individuals differ in their sensitivity. According to the differential susceptibility hypothesis by Belsky (1997b; 1997a; 2005) individuals vary in the degree they are affected by experiences or qualities of the environment they are exposed to. Some individuals are more susceptible (or sensitive) to such influences than others however, not only to negative but also to positive ones. For example, research by Pluess & Belsky  has shown that children with difficult temperaments in infancy are more susceptible to the effects of parenting and child care quality in the first 5 years of life. Intriguingly, these children not only had more behavioral problems in response to low quality care, they also had the least problems of all children when having a history of high quality care. This suggests that children with difficult temperament are highly susceptible rather than difficult and therefore able to benefit significantly more from positive experiences compared to other less susceptible children. These discoveries have prompted Pluess & Belsky to use the term vantage sensitivity in their review of such results, highlighting the evolutionary advantages of the trait.
Attributes and characteristics
The attributes of HSPs can be remembered as DOES:
- Depth of processing.
- Over aroused (easily compared to others)
- Emotional reactivity and high empathy
- Sensitivity to subtle stimuli.
HSP students work differently from others. They pick up on subtleties and may think about them a long time before demonstrating their grasp of a subject. If an HSP student is not contributing much to a discussion, it does not necessarily mean he or she does not understand or is too shy. HSPs often have insights they are afraid to reveal because they differ from the common view, or because speaking up is too over arousing for them. For ideas on teaching sensitive students, see The Temperament Perspective or the final pages of The Highly Sensitive Person. HSPs are often very conscientious, and gifted with great intelligence, intuition and imagination, but underperform when being evaluated. This also applies to work situations; HSPs can be great employees—good with details, thoughtful and loyal, but they do tend to work best when conditions are quiet and calm. Because HSPs perform less well when being watched, they may be overlooked for a promotion. HSPs tend to socialize less with others, often preferring to process experiences quietly by themselves. The ability to unconsciously or semi-consciously process environmental subtleties often contributes to an HSP seeming "gifted" or possessing a "sixth sense".
Dr. Elaine N. Aron created the 27-item Highly Sensitive People scale (HSPS), consisting of a variety of items related to sensitivity, such as: "Are you easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input?" or "Do you tend to be more sensitive to pain?" The HSPS was considered a unidimensional measure of sensory processing sensitivity with an acceptable reliability coefficient (α = 0.87). However, more recent studies suggest that the HSPS can be divided into three distinct factors, namely Aesthetic Sensitivity, Low Sensory Threshold, and Ease of Excitation.
The finding of subscales is not surprising, however, given the variety of items in the HSP Scale, which was based on 40 qualitative interviews. The items reflect the many ways in which the single attribute of depth of processing affects multiple areas of life. Hence from a measurement standpoint, what is more surprising is how well these various items do correlate.
Contrast with Dabrowski's over-excitability
Contrast with introversion
Elaine Aron responded to Susan Cain's 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking and its related Time cover story by stating that Cain was in fact describing highly sensitive persons (defined in terms of sensory processing sensitivity) and not introverts (which Aron says is recently becoming defined more narrowly in terms of social interaction). Though Aron wrote that Cain and others blurred the lines between sensitivity and introversion, Aron called the Time article "a huge, huge step" for understanding HSPs, and that as more is learned, the 30% of HSPs who are social extroverts will be better understood.
Sources and notes
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- Ketay, S., Hedden, T., Aron, A., Aron, E., Markus, H., & Gabrieli, G. (2007, January). The personality/temperament trait of high sensitivity: fMRI evidence for independence of cultural context in attentional processing. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Memphis, TN. Summary by Aron (2006): "A functional study comparing brain activation in Asians recently arrived in the United States to European-Americans found that in the nonsensitive, different areas were activated according to culture during a difficult discrimination task known to be affected by culture, but culture had no impact on the activated areas for highly sensitive subjects, as if they were able to view the stimuli without cultural influence."
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- Dr. Aron describes a second trait that can considerably alter the look of the trait in a particular person which is high sensation seeking. Although it may seem to be the opposite of sensory processing sensitivity, "the opposite of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a person who takes many risks, that is, acts without reflecting very much. An HSP who is an HSS (High Sensation Seeker) also will find ways to have novel experiences, but will not take ill-considered risks." (from WebMD Live Events Transcript The Highly Sensitive Person In Love with Elaine Aron).
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- Besides Study 4 in Aron, Aron, and Davies, 2005, a study under review as of 2012 has found HSPs to have more mirror neuron activity (associated with empathy) than others when looking at photos of happy or distressed faces. Another under review has found stronger arousal compared to others when viewing pictures known to arouse strong emotions, both positive and negative.
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- Aron, Elaine. 1996. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, ISBN 0-553-06218-2.
- Aron, Elaine. 1999. The Highly Sensitive Person's Workbook. ISBN 0-7679-0337-4.
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- Cain, Susan. 2012. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. ISBN 0-307-35214-5.
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- Mandel, Debra. 2003. Healing the Sensitive Heart. ISBN 1-58062-708-0.
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