I looked through the website and realized I have not written a blog about the research since 2017! I truly apologize. At this point I can hardly keep up, because there are so many research studies on high sensitivity (a.k.a. Sensory Processing Sensitivity, which by the way has nothing to do with Sensory Processing Disorder). I do not even know most of these researchers, and they are all over the world, from Japan to Turkey. So much published research means that there is widespread interest in the subject now. It’s gone big time!
In this blog I will summarize some recent research, and in future blogs earlier studies, between 2018 and 2020.
Inevitable Problems with Research
There are inevitable problems with the increasing research, in that it is sometimes tending to lead to a more negative impression of highly sensitive people (HSPs) than is correct. That is, there is a bias towards expecting HSPs to have problems, and that seems to be true for two reasons. First, almost no studies look at differential susceptibility: That as adults HSPs with difficult childhoods have more problems than others do, but with good childhoods they have fewer problems, and in fact thrive. That is the natural result of being sensitive to your environment. We do not know the percentage of adult HSPs who had good childhoods, and it is probably not the majority because their parents did not know anything about the trait. So, if you average all HSPs together, they might appear to be rather troubled, as some of the research suggests. But that really misses “vantage sensitivity,” all the good that comes from being an HSP, especially when growing up in a good environment.
Problems with the HSP Scale and the Coming Revision
The second reason for this somewhat negative bias is the HSP Scale (the slightly longer, research-version of the HSP self-test on the website). The original scale was created in the early 1990s, at the very beginning of our research. Over the years we were bound to discover problems with it. Namely, almost every item is about something negative or the wording is negative: I am easily overwhelmed, I am made uncomfortable by…, I am annoyed when…, I get rattled when…, I try hard to avoid making mistakes, I become unpleasantly aroused, and so forth.
Besides the problem with negative wordings, the current scale is also negative because it is almost entirely about being easily overstimulated and measures very little of the rest of DOES–depth of processing, empathy/emotional responsiveness, and being sensitive to the subtle. We know the “Big O” in DOES is the only problem with being an HSP. But items about overstimulation sure hogged the measure!
Naturally the negative emphasis has led to study after study finding HSPs are more anxious, depressed, subject to burn out, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Grr. It would be okay if researchers asked about childhood so that they could look at differential susceptibility. Or even mention differential susceptibility as a possible factor in their results. But that is still rare. As a result, poor studies are coming out all the time.
So, we are creating a new scale that measures all of what is missing. There’s a group of us working on it. Together we have written new items, tested them, and found what seem to be the best 60, and are now reducing the list to the very best ones. It will correlate well with the old measure (be similar statistically), as it should, because the old HSP scale does pick out HSPs from others and show, for example, their brain differences on tasks or how differently they behave in experiments.
Recent Studies (Least Affected by the Problems Above)
You can find the abstracts of these articles by copying and pasting the title (in quotes, after the number below) into Google Scholar. When you find the abstract, if there is something on the right, click on that and the full article may come up. If there is only an abstract, there will usually be a large charge for the full article, but your local library maybe able to get it for you, or any university library to which you have access
- The study “Sensory processing sensitivity behavior moderates the association between environmental harshness, unpredictability, and child socioemotional functioning” found that over two years, children (around 3 at the start) high in SPS, compared to those without the trait, if they were living in an unpredictable family environment, were more likely to become what we might call “hard to deal with”—fighting, hitting, being resentful (these are termed externalizing behaviors, and remember these are very young kids). On the other hand, those low in SPS were not especially affected by unpredictability at home. (SPS was measured by children’s behaviors in a laboratory study, not by the HSP Scale.)
“Unpredictable” was measured by how often things like sickness or death in the family happened, or moves, a separation or divorce of parents, or a change in primary caregiver. Harsh parenting did not affect HSCs and non-HSCs differently.
This effect on HSCs of unpredictability came up in another study, in which HSCs in kindergarten were more affected than other children by unpredictable parenting, but not affected more than others by “bad” parenting (such as parents being too permissive or authoritarian). It seems HSCs can get used to almost anything except constant change. This may be true of you, too.
Bottom line: You might want to work on learning to expect change (read some Buddhism!), to plan how you will deal with a change when you know one is coming (like a move), and accept or grieve a change when necessary. “No change happens without loss; no loss happens without some grief.” Above all, remind yourself that it is normal, for you as an HSP, to have these strong reactions to change.
- Here’s a good one: “Sensory processing sensitivity predicts performance in an emotional antisaccade paradigm.” I imagine you scratching your heads about this one. What’s that? A short answer is that it is a measure of being able to pause before acting, in this case pause with your eyes. You are shown a dot, then it moves. You are told either to follow the dot (prosaccade), the natural thing to do, or you are told to look the opposite direction that it moved (antisaccade), an instruction you obey more slowly because you must make an effort. This requires strong “executive” brain functioning. In this study, both dots and faces were used as the objects. HSPs were more “accurate” than others, in that they had a faster-than-average reaction time to the instruction to look the opposite direction. This was only true, however, when instead of dots they were responding to faces with emotional expressions, and especially true when researchers compared their response to neutral versus sad faces. By the way, these results had nothing to do with the mood of the subjects at the time.
Bottom line: You can feel even more confident that you and other HSPs process things, especially social information, more carefully and accurately at a deep level (not just thinking about the task more, but when asked to do it quickly, doing it better automatically). This contrasts with those having schizophrenia, ADHD, or autism, who in other studies were found to have slower reaction times on these tasks.
- The study “Sensory Processing Sensitivity Moderates the Relationships Between Life Skills and Depressive Tendencies in University Students” looked at which life skills (decision making, interpersonal relationships, communication, and emotional coping) were associated with lower depression, and found that for HSPs compared to others, emotional coping was the key skill. (Poor interpersonal relationship skills go with depression in everyone; poor decision-making skills, not surprisingly, with those low in SPS.)
Bottom Line: If you tend to get depressed, focus on your emotional coping skills!
- “Sensory-processing sensitivity and COVID-19 stress in a young population: The mediating role of resilience.” The results are not too surprising. HSPs were being slightly more negatively affected by the pandemic (obviously the circumstances you are in are the main factor, not temperament). However, this was not true if the HSPs had adequate levels of resilience, as measured by a six-item scale with items like “I tend to bounce back quickly after hard times” and “It does not take me long to recover from a stressful event.” This is undoubtedly at least partly the result of resilient HS teens having had more positive parenting, again due to differential susceptibility to good and bad circumstances.
Bottom Line: When asked how HSPs are doing during the pandemic, you can say that a study of teenagers found that on average they were doing about the same as others, maybe a little worse sometimes, but a large number are exhibiting greater resilience than others, probably due to differential susceptibility—that is, they are more affected by this event, true, but also by everything else, including a positive environment at home.
- “The role of sensory processing sensitivity and analytic mind-set in ethical decision-making.” Researchers manipulated “mind set” by giving participants an ethical problem to either think thoroughly through (deliberation mind set) or focus on finding a concrete, practical solution (implementation mind set). Not surprisingly, HSPs performed better in the deliberative mind-set, “allowing them to solve the problem using their natural problem-solving approach.” People who did not have the trait performed better in the implementation mind-set. “Results suggest that ethics interventions should not be ‘one size fits all,’ and should consider a person’s natural problem-solving tendencies.”
Bottom Line: This obviously validates the depth-of-processing aspect of our trait. To me this study also means the idea is getting out there, along with the wonderful advice that in whatever situation, one size does not fit all.
- “Experiences of Adults High in the Personality Trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Qualitative Study.” This study is just what it says: It summarizes in-depth interviews, done by experienced researchers, based on all we know now about the trait, but providing more fine-grained information, suggesting new hypotheses for fostering the well-being if HSPs.
Bottom Line: Could be worth reading.
It’s wonderful to see so much research. If you use Google Scholar, a lot more will come up. But I do not encourage it, as you must read know how to read the details in order to spot any flaws—usually concluding that HSPs are worse off than others in some way without having looked at childhood or current other life stressors. Still, things are coming along well. The more research there is, the more high sensitivity will be discussed in years to come as part of the professional training of teachers, therapists, and doctors. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?