I am continuing to close the gap between my 2017 report on research of HSPs/SPS (sensory processing sensitivity) and what is being published in 2022. In my last blog, I reported on the recent research and what had come out in 2021. Of course, I am already behind, with the new studies in 2022. But here you will learn about what was published in 2018 and some of what was published in 2019. (I do not want to make these too long.)
In my next blog, I will describe other studies from 2019 and start on those that appeared in 2020. In the blog after that, 2022. If all these dates confuse you, the bottom line is you will eventually have everything. If you are interested in the research and missed the last blog, be sure to read it here. It also had comments on the research in general.
- The Personality Trait of Environmental Sensitivity Predicts Children’s Positive Response to School-Based Antibullying Intervention Citation:
Nocentini, A., Menesini, E., & Pluess, M. (2018). The personality trait of environmental sensitivity predicts children’s positive response to school-based antibullying intervention. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(6), 848-859.
Antibullying interventions in schools work a little, but not a lot. Would it be different if you considered differences in the students? In a study of over two thousand students, grades four through six, researchers gave the HSP Scale designed for children and found that highly sensitive boys with high scores benefited much more from an intervention to reduce bullying than less sensitive boys. That is, according to self-report questionnaires, highly sensitive boys after the program were victimized less and less depressed or anxious. The highly sensitive girls also received more benefit than girls who were not highly sensitive, but the effect was not as great on girls as on boys. One explanation is that highly sensitive boys are more likely to be victimized. All the students in the anti-bullying program were compared to a control group who were not in the program, making it a well-done study.
Bottom Line: If you were bullied as a child, don’t you wish an intervention such as this had been done at your school? If you have anything to do with schools, ask for it to be done! These interventions are not uncommon so there should be no problem. Use the internet to search for tips.
Citation: Lionetti, F., Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Burns, G. L., Jagiellowicz, J., & Pluess, M. (2018 ), Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals. Translational Psychiatry, 8(1), 24. doi: 10.1038/s41398-017-0090-6
This important study found that HSPs are closer to 30% of the population rather than 20% as we have been saying for years. So far this seems to result in more and more studies. That’s fine. It’s how science progresses, and we will all have to change what we say to match new information that 30% are HSPs. Or as I still prefer, 20% to 30%.
This study also found that people fall into three distinct groups on the HSP Scale. Some of the authors (not myself or Art) decided to name the groups Orchids (30%), Tulips (40%), and Dandelions (30%). I am not so fond of any flower terms for describing the presence or the absence of the trait, given how boys may feel about it. Nonetheless, Orchids and Tulips were the terms coined by Tom Boyce, so that persuaded us to let it pass. Having found this middle group, everyone thought the name Tulips seemed to fit.
Bottom Line: I know 30% will take some getting used to, and I would not worry too much about changing it for now if you have said it or put it in writing.
Citation: Acevedo, B., Aron, E., Pospos, S., & Jessen, D. (2018). The functional highly sensitive brain: a review of the brain circuits underlying sensory processing sensitivity and seemingly related disorders. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373 (1744), 20170161.
In this study we (mostly Bianca Acevedo) compared studies of the brains of HSPs to studies of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) doing similar tasks. One small problem is that subjects with these disorders were not in a study with HSPs, doing the same tasks. Rather, studies of all four were compared. Nevertheless, it was easy to conclude that HSPs’ brains worked differently (although an HSP could still have any of these disorders— e.g an HSP could also have PTSD.) Note that in the last blog on research that I did for you, the study on “performance in an emotional anti-saccade paradigm” found HSPs were faster on the task, but those diagnosed with schizophrenia, ADHD, or autism had been found in other studies to be slower on this task.
Bottom Line: Should it come up in a conversation that HSPs are simply people with high-functioning autism, studies continue to suggest otherwise.
Citation: Lionetti, F., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., Klein, D. N., & Pluess, M. (2019). Observer-rated environmental sensitivity moderates children’s response to parenting quality in early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 55(11), 2389.
After years of hard work, there is finally a measure of HS in children too young to read. It was created by watching videos of children going through a particular set of activities while being observed by people trained in the method. So, it will not be easy to use unless children are observed in this set of activities.
Developing the measure was possible because we had videos that were part of a study going on over many years of the same children. This kind of “longitudinal” study is a great research method. The videos of the children when they were about three had already been rated for “temperament” (positive and negative, fearful, inhibited) to see how temperament at that age would affect mental health when these children grew up. So, the videos only needed to be re-rated for high sensitivity, which we decided would be rated as present in a child when we saw a mixture of holding back to watch closely at the start of an activity, but not seeming fearful, and then coming forward after a while in a curious, positive way, and being highly cooperative with experimenters.
The second major contribution from this study is regarding differential susceptibility. The HSCs identified at age three using the new measure were more affected at age six by how they had been parented compared to non-HSCs. If they were raised by parents who were “permissive,” as rated when the children were three, they were more likely to have “internalizing problems” (depression, anxiety) when they were six. On the other hand, if raised by “authoritative parents” (considered the best parenting style), sensitive children were more likely at six to be more socially competent than others. So that is a clear example of differential susceptibility—a negative environment leads to a negative result, but a positive environment leads to a positive result, but only for highly sensitive children. Children who were not found to be HSCs were hardly affected by their parenting (no parents in the study were abusive.)
Bottom Line: Just more evidence that HSCs with a good-enough childhood can truly shine. But don’t worry–the other HSCs will do fine with time and maybe some help.
The next study came out in 2021, but is from the same longitudinal study as the one above so I include it here:
5. The role of environmental sensitivity in the development of rumination and depressive symptoms in childhood: a longitudinal study
Citation: Lionetti, F., Klein, D. N., Pastore, M., Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Pluess, M. (2021). The role of environmental sensitivity in the development of rumination and depressive symptoms in childhood: a longitudinal study. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 1-11.
Just to remind you, in the study above, published earlier, the three-year-olds assessed for sensitivity were tested again at six, and the highly sensitive children with permissive parents had more problems, while those whose parents were using an “authoritative” style demonstrated more social competence than other children.
Now, in this study, with the children aged nine, highly sensitive children with permissive parenting were still doing poorly, although the positive effects of authoritative parenting found at age six did not show up at nine. The sensitive children at nine with permissive parenting scored higher on a questionnaire (the children were now old enough to ask on paper) about how much they ruminated (dwelled on negative thoughts) ) and scoring higher on rumination in turn tended to predict their being depressed at that age and did so to a lesser extent when they were tested again at age twelve. All in all, permissive parenting in this study was a problem for sensitive children. One might wonder whether “permissive” was a sign of parents being indifferent to their children, which sensitive children would notice more than others. Or it could be that sensitive children need active help understanding and regulating their emotions while young, and without that they are more troubled by negative feelings.
Bottom Line: Again, being highly sensitive means that how you were parented affected you more when you were a child and probably still does in adulthood. You might want to consider the type of parent you had: Permissive, authoritative (firm boundaries but listened to you with respect), or authoritarian(simply strict) and consider how this has shaped you.
Citation: Greven, C. U., Lionetti, F., Booth, C., Aron, E. N., Fox, E., Schendan, H. E., … & Homberg, J. (2019). Sensory processing sensitivity in the context of environmental sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 98, 287-305.
You have been warned: This is a long, complicated review of all the research. However, it does cover every study up to 2019, and discusses important matters, such as how SPS relates to other theories and other temperament and personality traits, the possible underlying causes of the trait, its “neurobiological mechanisms,” and its relations to various mental and sensory disorders. Good luck!
Bottom Line: There are enough studies now to permit the publication of a lengthy review of the research on HSPs.