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An Overstimulated Consumer in a Highly Visual World: the HSP Trait

2nd May 2024 - By Ana Cláudia Amaro, Luisa M. Martinez, Filipe R. Ramos, Karla Menezes, & Sílvio Menezes

About the authors

Ana Cláudia Amaro holds a master’s degree in marketing from IPAM Lisboa, Portugal, and is currently an assistant researcher. Her research interests include consumer behaviour, neuromarketing, and e-commerce.

Luisa M. Martinez is an assistant professor of marketing at IPAM Lisboa, Portugal. She holds a PhD in management from Universidade Europeia, Portugal. Her main research interest is colour (applied to organizational and consumer behavior) and, more recently, she has focused on sensitivity research. As her background is in architecture, her approach to research is interdisciplinary.

Filipe R. Ramos is an invited assistant professor at Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa. His research activity is centred on the fields of data analysis and mathematical modelling (namely in forecasting methods), applied to social sciences. He also focuses on machine learning/deep learning models.

Karla Menezes is a researcher and specialist in consumer neuroscience, neuromarketing, and consumer psychology. She is an adjunct professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Setúbal in Portugal and holds a master’s in marketing. She shares her passion for studying human behaviour, including brain-level decision motivations, at conferences, seminars, and training programs.

Sílvio Menezes is a researcher in business intelligence and organizational performance and has a long career designing IT-based solutions for small, medium, and large companies, in various industries. He is an invited professor at IPAM Lisboa, Portugal, holding a master’s in production engineering and a bachelor’s in information systems.


Research shows that people react differently to similar stimuli due to differences in their personality. This research study focuses on how people with higher sensitivity to external stimuli – commonly defined as Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) – react when exposed to adverts with excessive visual stimuli (i.e., colour, dynamic imagery, complex layouts).

Study background and objectives

Aron and Aron (1) suggest that the central nervous system of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is characterised by increased sensitivity to physical, emotional, and environmental stimuli. This trait has been defined as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), which translates into heightened emotional sensitivity, deeper reactivity to external and internal stimuli, and a complex inner self (2). It is believed that HSPs are more prone to being overwhelmed and can easily become uncomfortable with exposure to intense lights, colours, sounds, or certain bodily sensations.

Although research on people with high sensitivity has increased significantly (3), to the best of our knowledge, their response as consumers to various types of advertising remains unknown. As image-based social platforms have gained recognition in recent years (4,5), it is crucial to conduct research on visual perception considering the HSP audience. The assumption that at least 20% of the population is highly sensitive (1) has great relevance for such research.

Therefore, this study aimed to understand whether the degree of sensitivity of the respondents (as potential consumers) has a moderating effect on their attitude toward advertisements. We investigated whether the attitude to adverts is affected by the dynamics, complexity, and colour of the advert and whether HSPs differ from non-HSPs regarding their attitude towards the specific characteristics of the advert.


Two different methodological approaches were considered: Study 1 featured an experimental design approach with the help of an online questionnaire (149 participants in total), and Study 2 involved biometric responses using a brain wave–reading device (Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta brain waves are considered) to assess the physical reaction to the advert’s visualization (18 participants).

The HSP scale (1) was applied to assess participants’ sensitivity level, and three categories of visual stimuli (see Figure 1) were used as independent variables: colour (chromatic vs. achromatic), dynamism (dynamic vs. static), and layout (complex vs. minimalist).

The visual stimuli were digitally manipulated fictitious travel advertisements, and each variable was presented in a different destination setting (city, wild nature, and beach) to maintain an attitude independent of personal preferences. The attitude towards the advert was evaluated through a scale developed by Cho (6). The scale includes 8 items measured with a 5-point Likert type scale (1=Totally disagree to 5=Totally agree): 1. This ad is irritating; 2. I like this ad; 3.This ad has good visual effects; 4.This ad is eye-catching; 5. This ad is annoying; 6. This ad is informative; 7. This ad draws my attention; 8. I would enjoy seeing this ad again.

Key findings

The results provide empirical evidence that people with higher sensitivity have a more positive attitude towards adverts with less visual stimuli. Moreover, adverts with higher complexity or dynamism tend to be negatively perceived by HSPs. Overall, consumers who are HSPs tend to have a more positive attitude towards static (vs. dynamic), minimal (vs. complex), and chromatic (vs. achromatic) ads.

We conclude that the selection of elements presented in adverts is of extreme importance considering its effect on consumer attitude, especially for HSPs. Brands need to be aware of the needs and traits of their target audiences to achieve better outcomes.

Main contributions

The purpose of this study was to provide a better understanding of HSPs as consumers. Considering our findings, there are clear differences between the behaviour and the reactions of HSPs compared to non-HSPs. Our research suggests that HSPs would be considered a specific ‘consumer category’, with distinct preferences in adverts.

In more practical terms, as we live in a more digital and consequently more visually stimulating environment, with online ads surfacing and scaling into new heights, it can be considered valuable for brands and companies to adjust their advertising for easily overstimulated customers, appreciating that for some consumers “less is more”.

Suggestions for future research

Considering that the fictional adverts used in this study were focused on tourism, the same experimental method can be applied to other areas for further understanding and comparison between the HSP and non-HSP consumers. In addition, other aspects of online adverts, such as colour saturation, brightness, and even music or sound, should be considered in further research.


Figure 1. Images (a) and (b) representing the set of ads (Study 1 and Study 2)


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  3. Trå, H. V., Volden, F., & Watten, R. G. (2022). High Sensitivity: Factor structure of the highly sensitive person scale and personality traits in a high and low sensitivity group. Two gender-matched studies. Nordic Psychology, 1-23.
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