The Highly Sensitive Person

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Back to Comfort ZoneAugust 2007: Comfort Zone ONLINE
A Future Headline:
"HSPs, the Key to Human Survival"?


I know how dangerously inflated that sounds. But we have to face facts, and I will try to lay them out for you. Our trait is about having a greater awareness of what's going on, about thinking before acting, and so forth. Surely that is the key to human survival now.

Of course as individuals with diverse personal histories and possibly damaged selves, we may or may not be in a position to do much to advance human life. But as a group, especially if HSPs receive a good-enough up-bringing, there is a reasonable line of logic behind that headline. Let me connect the dots for you.

1. It Always Comes Down to Sensitivity

It is now widely accepted in biology that within species there are two clear types of individuals, representing two survival strategies. This is not a dimension with most in the middle, but two types. One type you and I call highly sensitive and the other not. Right now the terms used by biologists for the two types differ widely. This is because in one species the most obvious difference is in the degree of exploratory behavior, because that species' most obvious problem is predators, so the biologists studying that species might see the two types as Shy and Bold. Both strategies work but at different times—lots of predators, Shy wins; no predators, Bold wins.

In another species the obvious difference is degree of aggressiveness, because the most obvious problem is competition for food and mates, so the name for the trait is Hawks versus Doves. Hawks control food when it is highly available, but cannot find it as well as the observant Doves when it is not. If the issue is competition over females, Hawks dominate a "harem," but Doves sneak in to mate when the Hawks are worn out from fighting off other males. Again, both strategies work but under different conditions.

In another species, the obvious difference is degree of anxiety, perhaps because of natural threats, so in this case someone has named the trait Uptight versus Laid back, or Reactive coping versus Proactive coping. The Uptight bear the costs of constant vigilance unnecessarily when danger is minimal but survive better when there is actual danger.

In every case, what is common is sensitivity—to subtle signs of predators, aggressors, food sources, mating opportunities, physical dangers, and also what will work best to raise the young.

2. Primates Have a "Choice."

What about primates such as ourselves? Primates species vary in their social organizations from peaceful and cooperative to competitive and violent. The difference is not entirely decided by genetics. Individual groups have their own "cultures," with different tools (yes, primates use many tools) and ways of communicating. Groups also can differ in peacefulness, within a species. For example, chimpanzees are normally quite violent because the groups are dominated by a few male bullies who are always fighting for the top spot. But if those males all die or are removed, or the females are able to act as a unified "political" force, then occasionally chimpanzee groups can be surprisingly peaceful and cooperative. Even when new males grow to adulthood and fill the top spots again, the peaceful culture is maintained.

Bonobos are a particularly striking primate species for their peaceful, relaxed ways. They were only discovered a few decades ago and were at first called pygmy chimps, but they are actually a separate species of ape, and the closest to us genetically. In that species females dominate, so that a mother's status decides her son's mating opportunities—which means the males do not have to fight and can contribute more to the group in other ways. The reason for this arrangement is simply that females in general tend to be "doves" within any species, as their reproductive strategy is to have their few progeny all survive, which requires having a steady food supply through cooperation and a safe, non-violent environment for youngsters, whereas males benefit from having many offspring and worrying less about their individual survival. So a group dominated by females is always more peaceful. (However, there are primate species in which pairs bond for life and males take equal responsibility for raising the young in the troop—so we should not always equate male with non-peaceful.)

In bonobo groups, as with any social group, there are still quite definitely hierarchies among both females and males, but there is little fighting—the dominant females decide who gets what to eat. Female hierarchies in any primate species will be always relatively stable, since, again, they benefit from peaceful cooperation, and so it is with the bonobos. Members mostly accept their rank and live peacefully. Even when meeting other troops of bonobo, the groups do get tense and make threats, but then instead of fighting, they have sex—and then share their food. Sex between any combination—two males, two females, or male and female—is the major way that bonobos control group tensions. And they seem to enjoy it a great deal, including what appear to be female orgasms. Further, while only a few tough male chimps survive to adulthood, almost all male bonobos do.

The point is that whatever it takes to create harmony, all members of a peaceful group tend to live longer and, it appears, happier lives.

It should be noted however that in even the most aggressive species such as chimpanzees, the most bullying males can show true empathy (understanding that the other needs something and providing it), make huge efforts to reconcile with their enemies, and spend much of their time "grooming," which is a relaxing, socializing behavior. This is true of all the great apes. Why? Living together in relative harmony worked for our distant ancestors better than any other strategy. Individuals living in intact groups that support each other by watching for enemies and sharing food will survive better than individuals living alone or in groups in which there is constant mistrust and strife.

I began this section with "choice" in quotes, in that, while in some primate "cultures" doves rule and in others, hawks, primates do not seem to be able to control the type of culture they want. Perhaps it is because they cannot discuss a complicated strategy that they would all have to agree on, such as "let's as a group refuse to have anything to do with that bully," even though they seem smart enough to think something like that up. But even the most violent are capable of a peaceful culture.

3. Throughout Most of History, Humans Chose Cooperation.

Humans actually do seem to have something of a choice, in that they develop norms or rules that they live by, and the choice they have made is to be superbly cooperative. If you look at a city as a bee hive you will see what I mean. No other primate is as socially intricately connected at every level. One key to this strategy has been that males and females tend to bond and raise children together, so that the males do not have to fight so much. Sex occurs out of sight so jealousy is minimized. But traditionally our societies have been not so much noncompetitive as highly, highly cooperative.

The evidence is that in hunter-gather cultures, how we lived until very recently, group norms insisted on cooperation and squelched selfishness, even though meat was highly valued and therefore male hunters were needed, and one would think they could have kept the best meat for themselves and their family and friends. But in fact, all over the globe, anthropologists found the same pattern: If a male hunter did not share his meat generously and fairly with the entire group, or if he wanted other special treatment for his greater contribution, he was teased, ostracized, or even killed. Further, eating alone was frowned upon, so that there could be no cheating.

One reason for this norm of food sharing no matter what was because those who could not hunt were still terribly important for human survival, not only mothers and children, but also elders. Humans rely far more on culture as a means of survival—teaching what has worked in the past. Elders have the most experience of that, and have the time to pass on that information in stories and songs.

We do not know exactly how sensitive individuals were viewed in those cultures, but probably with great respect. They would have been the best trackers, the most aware of dangers and opportunities, most cooperative, most alert to aggressive tendencies in others, and on and on. No doubt they were highly valued during a hunt or when dealing with the constant predators humans faced because, aggressive or not, they had greater powers of observation and thought through strategies before endangering everyone by trying them.

4. We Are Now Really Forced to Choose.

Clearly aggression got out of control in some human social groups, but even those groups benefited, oddly enough, from cooperation. If everyone cooperates with a bully, then you have a highly organized group that can defeat other groups. You can have kings, slaves, armies, empires, and the rest of what makes prehistory into history, those records that the big egos wanted kept about their exploits. We know that all of this started around the time when humans domesticated plants and large animals. Those in the fertile, temperate coastal areas and river valleys of each continent specialized in farming. Those on the intemperate inner steppes specialized in herding and raiding each other on horseback, or if they lacked horses, then just arrived at the idea to raid and exploit others as a means of survival. The conquest or assimilation of the cooperative societies by the aggressive ones has continued unabated. What is the fate of the few hunter gatherers left in distant places such as the Arctic, Africa, the Amazon, and Australia?

Yet even aggressive societies foster amazing cooperation—within an organization ruled by strong leaders. But these leaders are allowed to be boastful, keep their wealth to themselves, and attack outside groups—perhaps even be admired for it—as long as they reward those who cooperate with them in keeping everyone else under control. And such leaders may decide it works better to fulfill the basic needs of the members by defending them against outside aggressors and maintaining justice (other than justice regarding their own behaviors). This is how the feudal system came into being and indeed all the monarchies that replaced hunter gatherers all over the world from Hawaii and Mexico to China and Japan.

Democracy is clearly a move back to having more control over powerful, selfish leaders through our giving them less mindless, fearful cooperation. The wonderful thing is that humans do discuss these things, as did those who wrote the U.S. Constitution. They saw and took the opportunity to create a new form of government, one that kept the leaders' powers better under the control of those they were supposed to serve. The European Common Market has created so much economic cooperation that another war among them now seems almost unthinkable. So humans can make these choices, difficult as it has been. But clearly our survival depends on choosing cooperation over aggression, globally.

Sensitive people are not as valued in an aggressive society just because they are "doves" by nature, but they are needed in them more than elsewhere. Their skill at sensing "hawks" and the true motives of selfish leaders, and their dislike of life in an aggressive society, all causes them to add considerable momentum to any effort to shift society in the direction peace. During that process and afterwards they remain the ones most likely to be aware of dangers and opportunities, favor cooperation, notice aggressive tendencies as they arise in others, and on and on. Hence I think we can make a strong argument for our essential role in human survival while we as a species choose the type of world we want and strategize how to make that happen.

Of course we have many limitations as well, both personal due to our histories and as a type. Remember sensitive types have a systematic advantage in certain specific situations, but are at a huge disadvantage in others. We have to be sure to pay attention to that.

5. What to Do About Our Weaknesses

The sensitive types in any species tend to freeze and hide rather than fight or fly in the face of danger. Any of these reactions to danger is all right, but involve different "costs" or put different stress on the individual. Research on other species as well as on humans, including my own research, suggests that the cost for this strategy is being more prone to develop chronic anxiety and depression when exposed to danger generally or to threats from aggressive others. For us this means that our effectiveness and leadership can be reduced by being exposed without social support to a great deal of danger. Thinking in terms of the "dove" perspective on our type, we know that doves try to avoid straight-on fights with hawks, and when defeated become more depressed than hawks, who are hardly bothered by repeated fights with opponents. These are facts we have to face.

The facts mean that, to be of most use to the world, our type should do what we do best rather than trying to live like the other type. To avoid developing chronic anxiety we should try to avoid danger altogether, as we HSPs do try to do, and shelter ourselves and our young from early bad experiences, and even news stories about bad experiences—we get the picture all too well without more pictures. We should especially avoid head-on confrontations with aggressive types so that we are not worn down and feeling defeated, then depressed. Rather, we should observe the aggressors from afar and outsmart them.

A word to sensitive men: Since the females of any species tend to be "doves," sometimes preferring peace and cooperation is viewed as "feminine." That is the perspective of a hawk in a hawkish culture. Take your rightful high rank because of the very fact you are peaceful and wise. You are simply another type of male, the smart dove-type of male found in all species. In species described as having hawks and doves, dove males are quite different than females or even dove females because each gender has its specific concerns and "duties" to perform for survival, in its dove way. Indeed, since for most of our history humans have survived by being doves and squelching hawkishness, you are closer to the true essence of a human male. The most successful human male in an evolutionary sense as well as in many other senses is the one who stands by his mate, peers, and offspring and refuses to engage in or tolerate selfishness, arrogance, or bullying.

Overall, to help our species create a more cooperative world, we sensitive men and women should support leaders with those values, and use our sensitivity to recognize and identify for others those who live those values, not just mouth them. Did I just say something political? I think not. It is more biological. We should also support each other so that we can all have more influence. For example, for some that will mean attending an HSP gathering! Others may prefer to reflect in solitude and share their resulting insights in other ways. But whatever else you do, just existing and being your sensitive, dovish self helps to sway things in favor of a better world.

6. No Need to Look Back—They Tend to Follow Us.

There is evidence that, when times get rough, the best survival strategy for a non-sensitive type within a species is to imitate the sensitive ones. Due to our keener observation of our surroundings, we tend to know when there is danger and what is safe and good. We know how to live at peace by not being selfish, aggressive, and competitive. It is time to stand up and be imitated. They will. They have to. Their survival depends on it.


August 2007 Articles:

A Letter from Elaine
Sensitivity in Culture: A Future Headline: "HSPs, the Key to Human Survival"
HSP Living: Highly Sensitive Attire - The Way We Dress
HSPs in Nature: Another Way to Receive Your Needed Dose of Nature - Day Camping


More Comfort Zone Email Newsletters

August 2007 Articles:

Sensitivity in Culture: A Future Headline: "HSPs, the Key to Human Survival"

HSP Living: Highly Sensitive Attire - The Way We Dress

HSPs in Nature: Another Way to Receive Your Needed Dose of Nature - Day Camping

A Letter from Elaine