None of the leading theories propose that women are more sensitive than men. But in studies that measure sensitivity with questionnaires, women often tend to report higher sensitivity.
Similar tendencies have been observed in studies investigating sensitivity in children, even when sensitivity was rated by psychologists rather than reported by the children themselves. Interestingly, these gender differences are not found in genetic studies.
According to a large twin study that examined the extent to which differences in sensitivity are determined by genetic and environmental influences, males and females did not differ from each other. The absence of genetic gender differences suggests that the heightened sensitivity found in women and girls may reflect social and cultural influences rather than biological ones.
For example, in many societies sensitivity is considered more of a feminine trait and therefore more likely to be accepted and expressed by women and girls.
Although girls often report higher sensitivity in questionnaires, several studies find that it is actually the sensitive boys whose behaviour is more influenced by the quality of their environment.
This suggests that females are not necessarily more sensitive than males, but that women and girls are simply more likely, and men and boys less likely, to report sensitivity behaviours. More research is needed to better understand gender differences in sensitivity, including the role of socialisation.
High or low sensitivity is not a psychological disorder. Research shows that every person is sensitive, but that people differ in their degree of sensitivity just as people vary in other common human traits, such as personality characteristics.
Interestingly, similar differences in sensitivity have been observed in many other species, for example, in dogs, fish, and birds. This 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.
Nevertheless, as with other personality traits, being at the extreme ends of the sensitivity spectrum may be associated with an increased risk for the development of psychological problems.
For example, research shows that people with high sensitivity tend to be more likely to develop psychological problems (e.g., anxiety, depression), but only when experiencing adverse circumstances.
People with very low sensitivity, on the other hand, may be at heightened risk of developing other problems due to their low levels of empathy, such as conduct disorder or psychopathy. However, the latter has not yet been investigated and confirmed in research studies.
Importantly, although some known disorders (e.g., autism, sensory processing disorder) are characterised by heightened sensory sensitivity, it must be noted that these disorders are fundamentally different from the common temperament trait of sensitivity.
High sensitivity is not necessarily a weakness but can be perceived as disadvantageous or challenging in some situations.
According to theory, individuals with high sensitivity are more strongly affected by negative (but also positive) experiences.
Research studies confirm that stressful life events and low-quality parental care for children have more negative effects on the well-being of highly sensitive people.
For example, highly sensitive children are more likely to develop behavioural problems than less sensitive children when experiencing negative parenting practices.
Furthermore, because the brain of sensitive people processes information more deeply, they tend to get more easily overwhelmed in highly stimulating or chaotic environments.
This may in turn negatively impact their energy and performance in such conditions. Importantly, whether a trait like sensitivity is considered a weakness is also influenced by cultural preferences.
For example, while being introverted and shy is generally perceived as undesirable in the United States, the same behaviours are welcomed and appreciated in China.
Being highly sensitive has several advantages. For example, sensitive people tend to be more aware of subtleties in their environment and therefore perceive details more easily.
They also tend to have a very good understanding of other people’s feelings and thoughts due to their heightened levels of empathy. Moreover, they often have a deep appreciation of beauty and have been found to be more creative than less sensitive people.
As a result of these qualities, sensitive people tend to be excellent counsellors, artists, advisers, therapists, coaches and scientists.
In addition, sensitive people also tend to benefit more from positive experiences. For example, studies have shown that highly sensitive children develop greater social skills and do better in school than less sensitive children when growing up in a caring and supportive environment.
Similarly, sensitive children have been found to benefit more from psychological programs than less sensitive ones.
According to theory, these advantages are the result of the heightened perception and deeper processing of sensitive people and reflect a common rather than an extraordinary or unusual trait.
Moreover, the advantages of high sensitivity are counterbalanced by its disadvantages and low sensitivity has also benefits such as higher robustness and resilience.
Sensitivity is the result of a complex interplay between our genes and experiences that begins in the womb and continues throughout life.
Interestingly, differences in sensitivity can already be observed during pregnancy. For example, research on prenatal development shows that some foetuses are clearly more responsive to sounds and their mother’s physiological and psychological stress than others.
In infancy, differences in sensitivity have been associated with specific temperament traits. According to research, sensitive babies tend to get more easily upset, cry more often, take longer to recover, are more reactive, more easily overstimulated, more afraid of strangers and unfamiliar situations, and more cautious in new environments.
Importantly, one of the reasons that sensitivity has been associated with these negative behaviours is that many temperament measures do not capture the more positive aspects of sensitivity.
Research further suggests that adverse experiences in early childhood can contribute to the development of heightened sensitivity in adolescence and adulthood, particularly in those with greater genetic predisposition for sensitivity.
This means that differences in sensitivity are in part genetic but also shaped by the type and quality of our upbringing and environment. However, more research is needed to investigate how sensitivity develops and changes throughout life.
Like most other common human traits, sensitivity is partially genetic. About 50% of the differences in sensitivity between people can be explained by genetic factors, whereas the remaining 50% are accounted for by environmental influences.
Although several studies examined and identified individual genes that seem to be related to sensitivity, it is very unlikely that the genetic basis of sensitivity is the result of just one or a few genes.
Most complex and common human traits have been found to be associated with a large number of genes, usually several thousand, and each typically has a very small effect.
Hence, there is likely no single “sensitivity gene” and any gene that is related to sensitivity will explain only a tiny fraction of the differences in sensitivity.
As a result, researchers have focused on adding up the hundreds to thousands of genetic variants related to sensitivity into an overall genetic sensitivity score.
This research has shown that children that are genetically more sensitive are indeed more strongly affected by the parenting quality they experience and adults that are genetically more sensitivity have been found to benefit more from psychological intervention.
Sensitivity shares some similarities with other common personality traits. In psychology, personality is usually described and measured across five dimensions.
These are Extraversion (being sociable and outgoing), Neuroticism (being easily stressed and anxious), Openness to Experiences (being open-minded and imaginative), Agreeableness (being kind and cooperative), and Conscientiousness (being self-disciplined and orderly).
Studies have shown that highly sensitive people tend to have higher scores of Neuroticism and Openness to Experiences.
The relationship between sensitivity and the other three personality traits tends to be minimal, including Extraversion (which represents the opposite end of Introversion).
While Neuroticism reflects the tendency of sensitive people to be more negatively affected by adverse experiences, Openness to Experiences captures their heightened sensitivity to positive aspects of the environment.
But these common personality traits explain only a small part of sensitivity. Importantly, experiences that people make across life are known to influence the development of personality.
For example, sensitive people that experience difficult childhoods are more likely to develop high Neuroticism, compared to sensitive people growing up in supportive environments.
Finally, although sensitivity is often described as being similar to introversion, this association is not clearly supported by research studies that use established measures of personality.
The untested assumption of several sensitivity theories is that about 20% of people can be categorised as highly sensitive whereas the remaining 80% fall in the normal range.
People in the highly sensitive group have been described as “Orchids” since orchids require optimal care but are particularly beautiful when they flourish. Less sensitive individuals, on the other hand, have been compared to “Dandelions” that tend to be more robust and grow anywhere.
However, research suggests that there are actually three different sensitivity groups. Whereas about 30% of people are characterised by high levels of sensitivity and fit the “Orchids” group, another 30% represent the “Dandelions” group due to their lower sensitivity levels.
But the majority of about 40% falls between these two groups. People in this medium sensitivity group have been described as “Tulips” to reflect the fact that they are less delicate than “Orchids”, but also not as robust as “Dandelions”.
Orchids tend to be less extroverted and more emotionally reactive whereas Dandelions are more extroverted and less emotionally reactive, with Tulips being somewhere between Orchids and Dandelions.
Importantly, differences in sensitivity between these three groups should be understood as reflecting a spectrum from low to high. Therefore, people that fall into the low sensitivity group are still sensitive to their environment but, just to a lower degree than the other groups.
Although there seem to be some similarities at first sight, sensitivity differs considerably from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
While ASD and ADHD are acknowledged and diagnosable developmental disorders, sensitivity represents a common and healthy human trait.
What sensitivity seems to have in common with (mild) autism is heightened sensory sensitivity as well as the tendency to withdraw from busy and chaotic situations or large gatherings.
However, whilst the withdrawal of sensitive individuals from such situations is due to feelings of overstimulation, individuals with autism tend to avoid them also because of their limited social skills.
In contrast to the social challenges that characterise autism, highly sensitive people have a particularly well-developed understanding of relationships and a high degree of empathy.
What sensitivity has in common with ADHD is that sensitive people are also more likely to get distracted in highly stimulating situations.
However, when in a quiet and calm environment sensitive people have particularly good concentration, whereas people affected by ADHD still struggle to concentrate.
Given the potential risk that highly sensitive people could get misdiagnosed as having autism or ADHD, more research is needed to establish clear differentiation between sensitivity and these neurodevelopmental disorders.
The available sensitivity measures are not suitable as diagnostic tools and it is important that any person concerned about ASD or ADHD is seen by a specialist to ensure proper and professional diagnosis and potential treatment.
As with most personality traits, the typical way to measure sensitivity is with questionnaires.
A series of questionnaires have been developed based on extensive and carefully conducted research to measure sensitivity in children and adults, such as the Highly Sensitive Child (HSC) scale and the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) scale.
Importantly, these scales have been tested repeatedly in empirical research and found to reliably capture sensitivity to the environment.
But whilst questionnaires have many advantages and capture the subjective experience of the individual, they tend to be less objective. A more objective and less biased way of measuring sensitivity can be achieved through the rating of observed behaviour by trained specialists.
Such a rating system has been developed for 3-year-old children and proven to be accurate.
Given that sensitivity is partially explained by genetics it is also possible to measure sensitivity by considering an individual’s genetic make-up, but the current state of knowledge does not yet allow for accurate individual assessment.
It may be more promising to focus on physiological aspects of sensitivity such as hormones and the brain. Although existing questionnaires and rating scales already provide a valid way of measuring sensitivity, more research is required to make the assessment more objective, precise and reliable.