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Are Gifted Individuals Truly Highly Sensitive? Unraveling the Connection

5th December 2023 - By Dr Véronique De Gucht and Dion H.A. Woestenburg

About the authors

Véronique De Gucht holds a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, an advanced degree in cognitive-behavioral therapy, and a PhD in Health Psychology. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Health and Medical Psychology at Leiden University. In collaboration with Dion Woestenburg, she developed the Sensory Processing Sensitivity Questionnaire (SPSQ), which has recently been transformed into the SPS-Monitor, an app that provides users with immediate feedback.

Dion H.A. Woestenburg holds a master’s degree in the specialization of Methodology and Statistics for Psychology. He collaborated with Dr. Mark de Rooij on logistic multidimensional data analysis and is currently involved in various statistical projects, encompassing scientific research, web application development, data visualization, and classification tasks.


In our study, we investigated whether gifted individuals exhibit higher scores on Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). The findings indicate that gifted individuals have lower scores on negative aspects of sensitivity, such as Emotional and Physiological Reactivity, while scoring higher on positive aspects, such as Aesthetic Sensitivity. These differences are partially explained by lower Neuroticism and higher Openness among gifted respondents.

Study background and aims

Gifted individuals, with exceptional cognitive abilities such as a high IQ, strong critical and abstract thinking skills, and the ability to solve complex problems quickly, have been suggested to also exhibit high sensitivity. This potential connection is based on clinical observations noting similarities between giftedness and high SPS (1).

However, there is a lack of direct scientific support for this assumption, as previous studies have only offered indirect evidence suggesting a link between giftedness and high sensitivity based on resemblances in their personality profiles. For instance, it has been found that gifted individuals often exhibit higher scores on the personality trait of Openness, characterized by curiosity and receptivity to new ideas, and lower scores on Neuroticism, which is related to emotional (in)stability (2).

In studies concerning SPS, a weak positive association has been found between Openness and SPS, especially in relation to Aesthetic Sensitivity—a positive aspect of SPS. Additionally, there is a strong positive link between the negative aspects of SPS and Neuroticism (3, 4)

The main objective of our study (5) was to bridge the knowledge gap by comparing (facets of) SPS between a gifted sample and a general population sample. The study aimed to investigate whether gifted individuals demonstrate heightened sensitivity and whether this relationship can be explained by the personality traits of Openness and Neuroticism.

Study method

The study included two participant groups: gifted individuals and the general population. The gifted sample comprised a total of 636 participants with an IQ of at least 130. The general population consisted of 10,291 participants.

The Sensory Processing Sensitivity Questionnaire (SPSQ; 3) was utilized to assess SPS. It comprises six subscales, four of which measure positive aspects (Social-Affective Sensitivity, Aesthetic Sensitivity, Sensitivity to Subtle Internal and External Stimuli, and Sensory Comfort), while the remaining two subscales focus on more negative aspects of SPS (Emotional and Physiological Reactivity, and Sensory Discomfort). Openness and Neuroticism were measured with the Big Five Inventory (BFI).

Factor scores were computed for the SPSQ factors, and a Multivariate Analysis of Covariance (MANCOVA) was conducted to compare the means between the gifted and general population samples, with the demographic characteristics gender, age, educational level, and employment status as control variables.

To investigate the indirect effects of giftedness on SPSQ dimensions through the personality traits Openness and Neuroticism, Structural Equation Modelling (SEM) was employed.

Main findings

We found relevant differences in Sensory Processing Sensitivity between gifted individuals and the general population. Gifted individuals displayed lower overall sensitivity and scored lower on the negative dimension of SPS, but higher on the positive dimension.

Specifically, they exhibited lower scores on Emotional and Physiological Reactivity and higher scores on Aesthetic Sensitivity, Social-Affective Sensitivity, and Sensory Comfort, even when accounting for various demographic factors. However, the differences between the two groups in terms of positive aspects of SPS were considerably smaller than the differences in negative aspects.

Furthermore, the study revealed that observed differences in sensitivity could be partially attributed to the personality traits of Openness and Neuroticism.

Openness explained higher scores on the positive SPSQ dimension, particularly Aesthetic Sensitivity, while Neuroticism accounted for the lower scores of the gifted sample on the negative SPSQ dimension, specifically Emotional and Physiological Reactivity.

Given that Neuroticism is associated with a higher risk of developing psychological problems, these findings may suggest that gifted adults are at a lower risk of experiencing such issues.

The question then arises as to why gifted individuals tend to score lower on SPS, particularly on its negative dimension. One possible hypothesis is that, owing to their rapid cognitive processing and ability to solve complex problems quickly, gifted individuals possess effective coping skills when faced with various circumstances.

Consequently, they may be less likely to become overwhelmed by excessive or a multitude of stimuli. The finding that highly gifted individuals score higher on the positive dimension of SPS, particularly aesthetic sensitivity, might be attributed to specific traits considered characteristic of giftedness, such as attention to detail, thinking outside the box, curiosity, and creativity.

To conclude

In summary, gifted individuals tend to show lower Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) scores, especially in the negative dimension. However, they exhibit higher scores in the positive dimension of SPS, partly due to their increased Openness to experience. These findings highlight the significance of prioritizing these positive aspects when offering counseling to gifted adults, aiming to facilitate the realization of their full potential.


  1. Rinn, A. N., & Bishop, J. (2015). Gifted adults: A systematic review and analysis of the literature. Gifted Child Quarterly, 59, 213-235.
  2. Ogurlu, U., Özbey, A. (2021). Personality differences in gifted versus non-gifted individuals: A three-level meta-analysis. High Ability Studies,
  3. De Gucht, V., Dion, Woestenburg, D. H. A., & Wilderjans, T. F. (2022). The Different Faces of (High) Sensitivity, Toward a More Comprehensive Measurement Instrument. Development and Validation of the Sensory Processing Sensitivity Questionnaire (SPSQ). Journal of Personality Assessment, 104, 784-799.
  4. Lionetti, F., Pastore, M., Moscardino, U., Nocentini, A., Pluess, K., Pluess, M. (2019). Sensory Processing Sensitivity and its association with personality traits and affect: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 81, 138-152.
  5. De Gucht, V., Woestenburg, D. H. A., Backbier, E. (2023). Do gifted individuals exhibit higher levels of Sensory Processing Sensitivity and what role do Openness and Neuroticism play in this regard? Journal of Research in Personality, 104,