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Highly sensitive person

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Highly sensitive person

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity (or innate sensitiveness, as originally coined by Carl Jung[1][2]). Some common signs are sensitivity to loud noises, bright or fluorescent lights, and strong smells. HSP's often describe themselves as having a rich and complex inner life. They may startle easily and get rattled when required to accomplish a lot in a short time. According to Elaine N. Aron and colleagues as well as other researchers, highly sensitive people, who compose 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.[3] 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, social inhibition, social phobia and innate fearfulness,[4][5] and introversion.[6] The trait is measured using the HSP Scale, which has been demonstrated to have both internal and external validity.[6] Although the term is primarily used to describe humans, something similar to the trait is present in over 100 other species.[7][8]


  • Usage 1
  • Epistemological considerations 2
  • Research 3
  • Attributes and characteristics 4
  • Measures 5
  • Contrast with Dabrowski's over-excitability 6
  • Contrast with introversion 7
  • See also 8
  • Sources and notes 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


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.[9] 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's 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.; Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person by Barrie Jaeger, and the memoir Help Is On Its Way by Jenna Forrest.[10]

Epistemological considerations

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 as 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,[11] including low sensory threshold, and a shy-bold continuum described in animal species. [12] [13] 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 (being primarily concerned with one's internal life) 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.[2] 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),[14][15] Gray’s ideas were adopted by Jerome Kagan[5] in his description of inhibition in children. Finally there is the tradition of Thomas & Chess[11] resulting in the work by Evans & Rothbart on Orienting Sensitivity.[16] As a large body of research[17][18][19][20] 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[21] 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.)[7]

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 to which they are exposed. 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 [22][23] 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.[24]

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[25]
  • 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[26] or the final pages of The Highly Sensitive Person.[27] 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.[28] 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.[27][29] 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).[27] 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.[30]

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

Readers interested in HSP may want to compare and contrast Aron's approach with Dabrowski's concept of over-excitability in his theory of Positive Disintegration.

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[31] by stating that Cain was in fact describing highly sensitive persons (defined[6] in terms of sensory processing sensitivity) and not introverts (which Aron says is recently becoming defined[32] more narrowly in terms of social interaction).[33] 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%[32] of HSPs who are social extroverts will be better understood.[33]

See also

Sources and notes

  1. ^ Aron, E.N. (2006). "The Clinical Implications of Jungs Concept of Sensitiveness" (PDF). Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice 8: 11–43. 
    • Jung, C. (1913). 'The theory of psychoanalysis'. CW 4.
    • ______ (1916). 'Psychoanalysis and neurosis'. CW 4.
  2. ^ a b Aron, E.; Aron, A.; Jagiellowicz, J. (2012). "Sensory processing sensitivity: A review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity". Personality and Social Psychology Review 16: 262–282.  
  3. ^ 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."
  4. ^ Brodt, S.; Zimbardo, P. (1981). "Modifying Shyness-Related Social Behavior Through Symptom Misattribution". Journal of Personality and Society Psychology 41 (3): 437–49.  
  5. ^ a b Kagan, J. 1994 Galen’s prophecy. New York: Basic Books.
  6. ^ a b c Aron, Elaine; Aron, Arthur (1997). "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality" (PDF).  
  7. ^ a b Wolf, M.; Van Doorn, S.; Weissing, F. J. (2008). "Evolutionary emergence of responsive and unresponsive personalities". PNAS 105 (41): 15825–15830.  
  8. ^ While many animals are sensitive to specific stimuli, it seems that others demonstrate a broader sensitivity, plasticity, or flexibility. For example, Sih and Bell (2008) wrote that enough examples exist "to suggest that individual difference in environmental and social sensitivity is common, potentially quite important, and worthy of further study" (p. 16). Dingemanse and colleagues (2009) provide an integrative model for observing personality traits (e.g., shy, bold, aggressive, nonaggressive) that in some species or individuals are inflexible and completely specific to context but in other cases are flexible, occurring in some contexts and not in others, according to its usefulness, so that the underlying trait in these cases would be being sensitive enough to know when to be sensitive—suggesting layers of processing.
    • Dingemanse, J. N.; Kazem, A. J. N.; Reale, D.; Wright, J. (2009). "Behavioral reaction norms: Animal personality meets individual plasticity". Trends in Ecology & Evolution 25: 81–89.  
    • Sih, A.; Bell, A. M. (2008). "Insights for behavioral ecology from  
  9. ^ Aron, E. N.; Aron, A.; Davies, K. (2005). "Adult shyness: The interaction of temperamental sensitivity and an adverse childhood environment". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31: 181–197.  
  10. ^ 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).
  11. ^ a b Thomas, A., & Chess, S. (1977). Temperament and development. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
  12. ^ Wilson, DS; Clark, AB; Coleman, K; Dearstyne, T (1994). "Shyness and boldness in humans and other animals".  
  13. ^ Hedrick AV (2000). "Crickets with extravagant mating songs compensate for predation risk with extra caution". Proc. Biol. Sci. 267 (1444): 671–5.  
  14. ^ McNaughton, N.; Gray, J. A. (2000). "Anxiolytic action on the behavioral inhibition system implies multiple types of arousal contribute to anxiety". Journal of Affective Disorders 61: 161–176.  
  15. ^ Amodio, M. D.; Master, L. S.; Yee, M. C.; Taylor, E. S. (2008). "Neurocognitive components of the behavioral inhibition and activation systems: Implications for theories of self-regulation". Psychophysiology 45: 11–19.  
  16. ^ Evans, D. E.; Rothbart, M. K. (2007). "Development of a model for adult temperament". Journal of Research in Personality 41: 868–888.  
  17. ^ Jagiellowicz, J.; Xu, X.; Aron, A.; Aron, E.; Cao, G.; Feng, T.; Weng, X. (2011). "Sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes". Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 6: 38–47.  
  18. ^ Aron, A.; Ketay, S.; Hedden, T.; Aron, E.; Markus, H. R.; Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2010). "Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response, Special Issue on Cultural Neuroscience". Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5: 219–226.  
  19. ^ Chen, C.; Chen, C.; Moyzis, R.; Stern, H.; He, Q.; Li, H.; Dong, Q. (2011). "Contributions of dopamine-related genes and environmental factors to Highly Sensitive Personality: A multi-step neuronal system-level approach". PLoS ONE. 6: e21636.  
  20. ^ Licht, C., Mortensen, E. L., & Knudsen, G. M. (2011). Association between sensory processing sensitivity and the serotonin transporter polymorphism 5-HTTLPR short/short genotype. Biological Psychiatry, 69, supplement for Society of Biological Psychiatry Convention and Annual Meeting, abstract 510.
  21. ^ Gerstenberg, F. X. R (2012). "Sensory-processing sensitivity predicts performance on a visual search task followed by an increase in perceived stress". Personality and Individual Differences 53: 496–500.  
  22. ^ Pluess, M.; Belsky, J. (2009). "Differential Susceptibility to Rearing Experience: The Case of Childcare". Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 50 (4): 396–404.  
  23. ^ Pluess, M.; Belsky, J. (2010). "Differential Susceptibility to Parenting and Quality Child Care". Developmental Psychology 46 (2): 379–90.  
  24. ^ Pluess, Michael; Belsky, Jay (2012). "Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences". Psychological Bulletin 139: 901–916.  
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Jan Kristal, Brookes, 2005
  27. ^ a b c Aron, Elaine. 1996. The Highly Sensitive Person, ISBN 0-553-06218-2.
  28. ^ Bhavini Shrivastava. "Predictors of work performance for employees with sensory processing sensitivity" September 2011, MSc Organizational Psychology, City University, London, Department of social sciences, Psychology
  29. ^ Attributes and Characteristics of Being Highly Sensitive by Thomas Eldridge
  30. ^ Smolewska, Kathy A.; McCabe, Scott B.; Woody, Erik Z. (2006). """A psychometric evaluation of the Highly Sensitive Person Scale: The components of sensory-processing sensitivity and their relation to the BIS/BAS and "Big Five. Personality and Individual Differences 40 (6): 269–1279.  
  31. ^ Walsh, Bryan, "The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)" (WebCite archive), Time, February 6, 2012.
  32. ^ a b Aron, Elaine N., Ph.D, "Understanding the Highly Sensitivity Person: Sensitive, Introverted, or Both? | Extraverted HSPs face unique challenges" (WebCite archive), Psychology Today, July 21, 2011.
  33. ^ a b Aron, Elaine N., Ph.D, describes HSPsQuiet"Time Magazine: "The Power of (Shyness)" and High Sensitivity" | ... (WebCite archive), Psychology Today, February 2, 2012.

Further reading

  • Aron, Elaine; Aron, Arthur (1997). "Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and Its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality".  
  • Bruch, M.; Gorsky, J.; Cullins, T.; Berger, P. (1989). "Shyness and Sociability Reexamined: A Multicomponent Analysis".  
  • Deo, P.; Singh, A. (1973). "Some Personality Correlates without Awareness". Behaviorometric 3: 11–21. 
  • Gough, H., & Thorne, A., "Positive, negative, and balanced shyness: Self-definitions and the reactions of others" in Shyness: Perspectives on Research and Treatment ISBN 0-306-42033-3.
  • Higley, J., & Suomi, S. "Temperamental Reactivity in Non-Human Primates" in Temperament in Childhood ed. Kohnstramm, G., Bates, J., and Rothbart, M. (New York: Wiley, 1989), 153–67.
  • Kagan, J.; Reznick, J.; Snidman, N. (1988). "Biological Bases of Childhood Shyness". Science 240 (4849): 167–71.  
  • Thorne, A. (1989). "The Press of Personality: A Study of Conversations Between Introverts and Extraverts".  
  • Raleigh, M.; McGuire, M.; Brammer, GL; Yuwiler, A (1984). "Social and Environmental Influences on Blood Serotonin and Concentrations in Monkeys". Archives of General Psychiatry 41 (4): 181–90.  
  • Revelle, W.; Humphreys, M.; Simon, L.; Gilliland, K. (1980). "Interactive Effect of Personality, Time of Day, and Caffeine: A Test of the Arousal Model". Journal of Experimental Psychology General 109 (1): 1–13.  
  • Zumbo, B.; Taylor, S. (1993). "The Construct Validity of the Extraversion Subscales of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator". Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science 25 (4): 590–604.  
  • Belsky, J.; Pluess, M. (2009). "Beyond Diathesis-Stress: Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences". Psychological Bulletin 135 (6): 885–908.  
  • 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.
  • Aron, Elaine. 2000. The Highly Sensitive Person in Love. ISBN 0-7679-0336-6.
  • Aron, Elaine. 2002. The Highly Sensitive Child. ISBN 0-7679-0872-4.
  • ed. Bates, J. and Wachs, T. Temperament: Individual Differences in the Biological Aspects of Temperament. ISBN 1-55798-222-8.
  • Cain, Susan. 2012. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. ISBN 0-307-35214-5.
  • Mesich, Kyra. 2000. The Sensitive Person's Survival Guide. ISBN 0-595-09800-2.
  • Mandel, Debra. 2003. Healing the Sensitive Heart. ISBN 1-58062-708-0.
  • Jaeger, Barrie. 2004. Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person. ISBN 0-07-140810-X.
  • ed. Wachs, T., and King, B. Behavioral Research in the Brave New World of Neuroscience and Temperament. ISBN 1-55798-222-8.
  • Zeff, Ted. 2004. The Highly Sensitive Person's Survival Guide. ISBN 1-57224-396-1.

External links

  • PDF Research paper Jawer, Mr. Michael (2005) Environmental Sensitivity: A Neurobiological Phenomenon?.
  • Podcast interview with Dr. Ted Zeff
  • Highly Sensitive Person Test (short version)
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