Vantage Sensitivity Theory: Sensitive People Benefit More from Positive Experiences
15th November 2020 - By Prof Michael Pluess
About the authors
Prof Pluess is a developmental psychologist and one of the leading authors in the field of Environmental Sensitivity with specific expertise in the development and validation of sensitivity measures besides significant contributions to theories of Environmental Sensitivity. He leads several research projects on sensitivity.
Sensitive people are more strongly affected by both negative and positive experiences. However, traditional thinking in Psychology mainly considered how people differ in response to adverse experiences. Vantage Sensitivity is a recent theory that has been developed to describe how people also differ in response to positive and supportive experiences.
All leading sensitivity theories suggest that people differ in their sensitivity to experiences they make with some more and some less sensitive. Even though sensitivity is a relatively new concept, Psychology has actually a long history of researching and considering how people differ in response to what they experience.
The Vulnerability Model
However, the focus of much of this work was traditionally on differences in sensitivity to exclusively negative experiences such as childhood maltreatment and stressful life events. As a consequence, sensitivity to the environment was generally understood as a vulnerability that increases the risk for the development of psychological problems when people experience adversity. This view has shaped the thinking in Psychology and Psychiatry for many decades.
According to this vulnerability model, there are two basic categories of people: vulnerable people and resilient ones. Simply said, vulnerable people are those that develop problems in response to negative experiences whereas resilient people are those that tend to maintain their well-being despite challenging and adverse situations.
Importantly, based on this vulnerability perspective such differences are thought to only emerge in response to a negative experience. In the absence of adversity, the model suggests that vulnerable and resilient people do not differ in their well-being: they are both doing equally well. However, the vulnerability model did never describe or even encourage to consider whether people differ also in their response to particularly positive experiences, such as warm and supportive parenting or the caring support of a loving friend.
From Vulnerability to Sensitivity
One of the shared and basic features of all recent sensitivity theories is that sensitive people are not only more negatively affected by adverse experiences but also benefit especially strongly from positive ones. But the traditional model of vulnerability is not able to describe such differences. In fact, when reviewing the literature, my collaborators and I did not find any psychological model or theory that clearly described individual differences in response to positive experiences.
One further and interesting consequence of Psychology’s traditional focus on vulnerability is the lack of any established terminology to describe people that are particularly sensitive to positive experience nor for people that seem to benefit less. That is, until relatively recently.
From Sensitivity to Vantage Sensitivity
Challenged by the lack of theory and suitable words to describe sensitive people’s tendency to benefit especially strongly from the positive effects of positive experiences, I endeavoured to develop both the missing theory and terminology. Together with Prof Jay Belsky, I ended up published a theory in 2013 that we named “Vantage Sensitivity”.
According to Vantage Sensitivity theory people differ in their response to positive experiences with some benefitting more and some less. Those that benefit from positive and supportive experiences show “Vantage Sensitivity” whereas those that fail to benefit in the same way show “Vantage Resistance”.
Importantly, the theory suggests that these differences emerge in response to a particularly positive experience. In the absence of such a positive influence, Vantage sensitive and Vantage resistant people are likely having similar levels of well-being. Furthermore, the model itself does not make any predictions about differences in response to negative experiences. It only focuses on describing differences in response to positive influences whereas the vulnerability model described only differences in response to negative influences.
Hence, sensitivity to both negative and positive influences therefore reflects the combination of the vulnerability and the Vantage Sensitivity model. Together these models can explain how the same people are more sensitivity to adverse but also supportive experiences.
Evidence for Vantage Sensitivity
Although a relatively recent theory, there is now a growing number of studies that provide evidence for individual differences in Vantage Sensitivity. I would like to describe one of our studies as an example.
The research study took place in a secondary girls-only school in London (Pluess & Boniwell, 2015). We tested whether 11-13 year old sensitive girls would benefit more from a psychological school programme aimed to promote resilience and prevent depressive symptoms. Sensitivity was measured with the Highly Sensitive Child scale and girls reported depression symptoms before and after the 12 week programme.
According to our data analysis highly sensitive girls did not have more depression symptoms than low sensitive ones before the programme started. However, over the course of the programme, sensitive girls’ depression symptoms kept decreasing and stayed low even 12 months after the programme started. This was not the case for low sensitive girls whose depression symptoms were not affected at all by the programme and even increased slightly during the same time period (see Figure). This means that sensitive girls showed Vantage Sensitivity to the positive effects of the programme while low sensitive girls displayed Vantage Resistance.
In summary, research studies provide evidence that highly sensitive children benefit especially strongly from positive experiences, such as psychological programmes aimed to improve psychological well-being. The Vantage Sensitivity model is helpful in describing such differences and advances our theoretical understanding of the benefits of high sensitivity.
- Pluess, M., & Belsky, J. (2013). Vantage Sensitivity: Individual Differences in Response to Positive Experiences. Psychological Bulletin, 139(4), 901-916.
- Pluess, M., & Boniwell, I. (2015). Sensory-Processing Sensitivity predicts treatment response to a school-based depression prevention program: Evidence of Vantage Sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 82(0), 40-45.