The Relation between Sensitivity and Common Personality Traits
1st September 2020 - By Dr Francesca Lionetti
About the authors
Dr Lionetti is a developmental psychologist and a researcher with expertise in parenting, attachment, socio-emotional development and Environmental Sensitivity. She has contributed to the development and validation of sensitivity measures for infancy and childhood, and is involved in the longitudinal investigation of how sensitivity develops and interacts with the environment.
Research has shown that sensitivity is related to common personality traits, such as Neuroticism and Openness to Experiences. The association with Neuroticism reflects the tendency of sensitive people to experience stress more easily. In contrast, Openness to Experiences seems to capture sensitive people’s aesthetic sensitivity and their deep processing of information.
The trait of sensitivity
Sensitivity is a basic human trait that is in part determined by genes, and in part by experiences made across life, at least when measured with a questionnaire . In this sense, sensitivity is very similar to other common personality traits.
Although sensitivity is related to some of these well-known personality traits, detected similarities are limited to specific aspects of sensitivity which suggests that sensitivity is a unique human trait that is different from other personality traits.
The Big Five personality traits
In psychology, human personality is commonly described using the Big Five, or the five-factor, model. According to this model, an individual’s personality can be measured and described along five dimensions that range on a continuum from low to high:
- Openness to Experiences, which refers to having a curious attitude and being open-minded
- Conscientiousness, which captures organisation skills, reliability and a preference for order
- Extroversion, which refers to being outgoing, assertive, and talkative
- Agreeableness, which describes being friendly and compassionate
- Neuroticism, which refers to a tendency to experience sadness, anxiety, and emotional instability
In a recent study, my colleagues and I  investigated by combining the findings of several studies whether and how sensitivity (measured with the Highly Sensitive Person and Highly Sensitive Child scales) is associated with these personality traits.
Our summary of a large number of previous research studies has shown that sensitivity shares some similarities with two specific common personality traits: Neuroticism and Openness to Experiences. But this research has also shown that sensitivity can’t be explained completely by the Big Five personality traits.
Temperament or personality trait?
Before I discuss these findings in more detail it is important to state that sensitivity should be understood as a temperament rather than a personality trait. What is the difference? Generally, temperament traits have a strong biological basis, can be observed already at birth and are relatively persistent throughout life.
Personality traits, on the other hand, develop over time and are the result of the complex and dynamic interplay between biologically based temperament traits and the quality of experiences when growing up. In other words, while sensitivity has a strong biological basis and doesn’t change much across life, personality is shaped by the experiences that we make throughout life.
However, as mentioned earlier, when sensitivity is measured with a questionnaire in late adolescence, we do find that both genetic and environmental influences play an important role.
How is sensitivity related to personality traits in children and adolescents?
In children, sensitivity appears to be associated only with Neuroticism, but not with any of the other four personality traits. This means that children and adolescents that are highly sensitive, also report having a tendency to experience negative emotions more often, and to get more easily thrown off by stressful situations. However, this does not mean that sensitive children and adolescents do not experience positive emotions. In fact, other research has shown that they do particularly well in a supportive and caring environment.
How is sensitivity related to personality traits in adults?
In adults, we found that sensitivity is related to Neuroticism and, to a lesser extent, Openness to Experiences. But it was not associated with Extraversion, Agreeableness, or Conscientiousness. Hence, sensitive adults seem to be more prone to stress, especially when experiencing negative situations, but are also more curious and find pleasure and joy more easily when learning new things. In addition, in a further research study that looks at personality more detail  we found that sensitivity measured with the Highly Sensitive Person scale is only associated with some specific aspects of Neuroticism and Openness to Experiences, but not others. In the case of Neuroticism, sensitivity was especially strongly related to anxiety and vulnerability. Regarding Openness to Experiences, data showed that sensitivity is especially strongly associated with Artistic Interests, Imagination and Emotionality, but not with Adventurousness.
Sensitivity and the Big Five personality traits: two constructs or one?
To conclude, when considering all available research studies together, findings suggest that associations between sensitivity and common personality traits exist. However, these associations are relatively weak and only found with the traits of Neuroticism and Openness to Experiences. This means that sensitivity, when measured with a questionnaire, is a unique trait that cannot be explained by related and well-established personality traits. In other words, sensitivity is a unique and specific combination of feelings and behaviours, though there is a degree of overlap with some common personality traits.
- Assary, E., et al., Genetic Architecture of Environmental Sensitivity Reflects Multiple Heritable Components. Molecular Psychiatry, 2020.
- Lionetti, F., et al., Sensory Processing Sensitivity and its association with personality traits and affect: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 2019. 81: p. 138-152.
- Pluess, M., et al., People differ in their sensitivity to the environment: Association with