Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2009
Dutch researchers Max Wolf, G. Sander van Doorn, and Franz J. Weissing have published an article in a very prestigious scientific journal that builds evidence for what they believe to be common among all the different species–over 100 so far–that have two personality types. One of these types is always the minority. I have called it high sensitivity, while others have called it shy (vs. bold) or nonaggressive (vs. aggressive). The problem has been that, for example, shy sunfish will be shy about entering a trap, but bold about exploring new objects. The same inconsistency is true of nonaggressiveness in other species. I’ve argued that sensitivity underlies what looks like shyness or nonagressiveness, but that in some circumstances the sensitive individual sees something, recognizes it from the past as good, and may respond faster or more aggressively than others. We are not fundamentally shy or fearful, but fundamentally sensitive to our environment and our internal states and act accordingly.
Now some biologists (most of them are discussed in the Wolf et al. article) are thinking the same way, that the trait is more about reactivity, plasticity, flexibility, or reflectivity. Wolf and his colleagues say something similar, yet quite fresh, too. They say that the two traits we call sensitive and non-sensitive (and they cite my research) can be seen as responsive and unresponsive. That is, when there is a new situation in which a choice is possible–go left or right, approach or back off–responsive individuals study a situation and act accordingly to what they can detect in it or remember from similar situations in the past. In the next new situation, they will do the same, trying to see what will work or adapt as they did in the past.
Unresponsive Has Its Own Rewards
Unresponsive individuals, when facing what seems to them to be a new situation, will behave in a more random way each time there is a choice, rather than studying the situation first. They just “go for it.” That would seem to be totally stupid, but it isn’t always. First, this only applies to choices in relatively new situations. Unresponsive humans are still very smart and learn well, but apparently they learn differently.
Further, in any species it can be smart in some situations to be unresponsive because the unresponsive do not have to expend the energy or bear the costs of being responsive. For example, it does tire us out to be constantly processing everything. We are eventually overwhelmed, go home, and perhaps miss an opportunity the unresponsive are able to take advantage of. Also, if our childhood was difficult, we were more affected by it and may bring lessons into new situations that are inaccurate. In that case it would certainly be better to behave randomly than repeat what was true then–for example, that you will be punished for speaking up about what you need–but is not true now.
More Comfort for the Unresponsive
If it turns out that responsiveness is associated with low serotonin, and this may well prove to be the case, and low serotonin turns out to be associated with more accurate cognition, also looking likely, then being responsive also means being vulnerable to depression, because those who are low in serotonin tend to be depressed. So vulnerability to depression would be another cost of being responsive that the unresponsive do not bear.
Also, many situations are almost random, so that you do just as well or even better by behaving randomly. To take the pure case, imagine you as a responsive person playing slot machines (even though you probably don’t gamble). There would be nothing to learn from one trial to the next, and if you thought there was, you would be wasting time and energy trying to figure out the strategy, as many people do. “Play the slot that an old woman has just left” or “Wait for someone to hit the jackpot and then play the machine to the left of where that person was.” A gambler sticking to one machine and working steadily at it will do just as well. On the other hand, if you are betting on horses, this is not random and knowing a great deal about horse handicapping would give you an advantage–at least until you wear out from processing all the information about past performance, breeding, jockey, and so forth.
Better Friends and Effortless Victories
To bring it closer to home, you meet a total stranger and pause to figure out if you want to get to know her. If strangers were completely random in how nice they would be, then unresponsive people would (and do seem to) respond randomly to strangers and make more friends (and appear to be extraverts) than we fussy folks. However, if nice people can be better detected through subtle cues that you as a responsive person can notice, then whether you are an introvert or an extravert, you will have better friends in the long run.
An interesting result of this theory is what happens in a competitive situation. HSPs often seem less competitive or aggressive. This is because we weigh a situation carefully before competing. If we see we can be successful, we win and may not see it as ever having been a competition, in that there was really no risk involved. If we see we will lose, we don’t engage. So it seems we’re “not competitive.” Those who behave randomly probably enjoy competition more because they get the thrill of the surprise of winning (like winning the slot machine). Further, if they keep up their strategy in a fairly random situation (they challenge others and the first person beats them, they beat the next, the next, then they lose, and so on in a random pattern), there is a chance they will come out on top or at least enjoy victory fifty percent of the time.
What really troubles HSPs, I think, is dealing with the unresponsive person who wants to challenge us. We are sensitive to physical and emotional pain and to losing so we are watching for cues as to what to do, confront or back off, but the other is not. If he or she is behaving randomly, that looks scary to us, impulsive, reckless. If the other is stronger, he or she will fight anyway, not noticing there’s no need to fight us. If the other is less strong, we are thrown into a moral dilemma–fight and hurt the other, or back off and appear to be a loser.
Secret Success, Public Nuisance
Finally, it is an advantage to be responsive only while most of those around us are not. If you see a short cut around a traffic jam that unresponsive people do not notice or bother to take, you get where you want to go faster. But if everyone takes the shortcut, it isn’t one. So while we may wish everyone was highly sensitive, evolution will never support that. We have to be a minority, and on top of that, a responsive one. Again, I remember the curse Apollo gave to Cassandra: Always to know the truth and never to be believed. Our genes mean we will always be looking for, learning from, and responding to subtle cues that everyone else will be paying no attention to, so that they think we are some kind of loonies–not just once, but every time there’s a new situation facing you and the others.
Reference: Wolf, M., Van Doorn, S., & Weissing, F. J. (2008). Evolutionary emergence of responsive and unresponsive personalities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(41), 15825-15830.