It can be easily observed that some people are more sensitive than others. Researchers define sensitive people as those who are more strongly affected by what they experience.
This can include how one is influenced by the physical environment but also social relationships, work conditions and upbringing, to give just some examples. Although everyone is sensitive to an extent, research has shown that people tend to fall into three different groups along a spectrum of sensitivity with about 30% classed as low, 40% as medium and 30% as high in sensitivity.
Importantly, although highly sensitive people are more likely to struggle under stressful circumstances, they are also especially receptive to positive and supportive experiences. Those who are low in sensitivity, on the other hand, tend to be more resilient when facing adversity but also benefit less from positive experiences.
Several psychological theories have been developed to describe such differences in sensitivity.
The leading theories have recently been summarised into the overarching concept of Environmental Sensitivity, which integrates existing terms such as the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), Orchids and Dandelions, and Differential Susceptibility.
According to the theory of Environmental Sensitivity, people differ in their ability to perceive and process information about their environment due to neurobiological differences in their brain, which is partially explained by genetic differences. Although this means sensitivity has a genetic basis, research has shown that it is equally shaped by people’s environment and experiences across their lives.
Sensitivity can be easily and reliably measured with a range of short questionnaires that have been developed and validated by researchers.
After more than 20 years of academic research, it is clear that sensitivity is an established, recognised and empirically verified human trait.
However, while we have gained much from research to-date, more investigation is needed. Additional work on key areas such as the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the trait, the existence of gender, cultural and other differences, and its role in the development of psychological disorders, to mention just a few, will help us to understand sensitivity more fully.
Frequently asked questions
Sensitivity is a basic human trait and describes the ability to perceive and process information about the environment.
Sensitivity consists of two basic components. Firstly, the perception of sensory input from the environment such as sound, smell, taste, and touch.
Secondly, the cognitive processing of the perceived information about the environment, such as thinking deeply about and reflecting on experiences.
Although everyone is sensitive to some extent, some people are more sensitive than others. Research shows that highly sensitive people are more negatively affected by adversity but also benefit particularly strongly from positive experiences. Simply put, sensitive people are those who are more strongly influenced by what they experience.
The fact that similar differences in sensitivity have been observed in many other species, for example, in dogs, fish and birds, suggests that sensitivity has a biological basis and was conserved over the course of evolution due to its important role for adaption to the environment. Indeed, sensitivity in humans has been associated with neurobiological differences in the brain as well as genetic factors.