When Sensitivity and Culture Collide
16th June 2021 - By Andrew May
About the authors
Dr Andrew May is a postdoctoral fellow at the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research interests center around the intersection between genetics and psychology, especially in areas such child development, personality, and mental health.
Different cultural views on sensitive behaviour can complicate the measurement of innate levels of sensitivity. To explore this issue further, we tested the Highly Sensitive Person scale in the most culturally diverse setting to date: the rainbow nation of South Africa.
Although our level of sensitivity is an innate trait, calibrated through biological, genetic and environmental factors during our early childhood, how we interpret, understand, and outwardly display our sensitivity is influenced by our cultural upbringing.
Cultural views on sensitivity can vary widely, encouraging different patterns of sensitive behaviour. For example, Western, individualistic culture tends to harshly discourage sensitivity, considering it a personal flaw, whilst Eastern, collective culture highly values sensitivity and the group cohesion and selflessness it tends to afford (1).
These cultural differences can blur the measurement of sensitivity, especially through self-report questionnaires like the Highly Sensitive Person scale (HSP).
The African continent is commonly acknowledged for its rich tapestry of culture, woven together by peoples from over 2000 ethnolinguistic groups (2). On balance, African culture is summarised by the collective concept of ‘ubuntu’, often translated as “a person is a person through other people”.
Ubuntu stresses the importance of our shared humanity, and the unbreakable link between “self” and “other”. However, as Africa continues to transition towards a more urban lifestyle, many individuals must navigate the uncomfortable tension between the collectivist beliefs of African culture, and the individualistic beliefs that come with urban living.
This is especially evident in South Africa, “the rainbow nation”, which is home to a generous mixture of cross-continental African individuals living in bustling city spaces.
How exactly is the accurate measurement of sensitivity affected in a culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse context? We set out to explore this question by administering the HSP scale amongst eclectic samples of South African residents.
Specifically, we aimed to test the psychometric properties of the HSP scale, checking to see if the scale remained reliable and valid when tested in samples quite different to those used to develop the instrument (3).
To begin, we conducted a pilot study in which we examined a small set of HSP scale responses from over 90 students at an English-speaking university. Many of the students did not speak English as their home language, and we wondered if some of the terms and phrasing of the questions might be unfamiliar to them.
We encouraged our pilot participants to describe any problems they might have had in understanding questions forming part of the scale. After clarifying some minor comprehension issues, we administered the scale to a larger number of students (n = 750), as well as to a longitudinal cohort of research participants drawn from an urban township (n = 1400).
These cohort members were all 28 years of age, and primarily Black African (88%), but came from many different walks of life, having varied levels of education, cultural backgrounds, and life experiences (4).
What did we find?
Across our different samples, the HSP scale functioned reliably and in line with samples from America and Europe, despite the lower English proficiency of our participants.
There were minor comprehension issues for less common English terms and phrases, like “frazzled”, “conscientious” and “inner life”, but these issues did not weaken the performance of the scale.
When grouping the HSP scale items into larger themes, based on the pattern of questionnaire responses (a process known as factor analysis), we identified five themes, namely Negative Affectivity, Neural Sensitivity, Propensity to Overwhelm, Careful Processing, and Aesthetic Sensitivity.
In most other samples, factor analysis tends to reveal only three main themes. The greater cultural diversity of our sample possibly resulted in a more varied pattern of responses to the HSP scale, which needed to be summarised using a larger number of themes.
In addition to grouping items into common themes, we also examined if participants could be categorised into groups based on a shared pattern of responses (a process known as latent class analysis). In line with other studies, we found that respondents can be loosely categorised into three groups reflecting high (orchids), medium (tulips) and low (dandelions) levels of sensitivity (5).
Amongst our most diverse sample (the longitudinal cohort members), we encountered a problem specific to culture. We detected a small number of individuals, predominantly men, who “faked” their low levels of sensitivity.
Several reasons may have contributed to this problem, but the simplest explanation lies in how men, worldwide, are socialised. Typically, men are discouraged from displaying, or even admitting to, sensitive behaviours. This is especially evident in patriarchal cultures, which includes many types of African culture (6).
Regardless of how innately sensitive these men were, cultural values may have compelled them to denounce sensitive behaviour. Detecting this issue of “faking” sensitivity was facilitated by using a handful of reverse-scored items that are not part of the traditional HSP scale.
What does this all mean?
Different cultural understandings and evaluations of sensitivity add an interesting but complex layer to the study of sensitivity as a human trait.
The HSP scale remains a strong research tool, but in any context where there might be good reason for individuals to present with a socially desirable level of sensitivity, it may be important to include additional mechanisms (such as reverse-scored items) to detect such responses.
In both our a) student and b) general population sample, our results supported the existence of three levels of sensitivity, namely high (orchids), medium (tulips) and low (dandelions).
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