Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2009.
I have always been reluctant to talk about kinds of sensitivity because, whether talking to scientists or the public, it is clearer to explain the trait all under the umbrella of one idea. You’ve read it enough at this website already, but it never hurts to repeat: High sensitivity is an innate strategy found in most or all animals, a “personality” type that prefers to observe carefully before acting, as opposed to a strategy of acting quickly, boldly, and perhaps aggressively. Both strategies are found in the same species because each is useful depending on conditions, such as how much rain has fallen, which determines food availability, determining the prey-predator ratio, and so on. Translated into a human example, sometimes those who have observed financial cycles and saved money “win,” but the cost is that at other times, when money’s aplenty, they “lose” by not getting to have or do as much “stuff.”
However, as biologists observe these personality types in various species, they find, of course, that there are many different specific ways that a set of individuals within one species might evolve to put into practice the overall principle of observing before acting. Some of these could be true in humans as well, although humans seem to be so adaptable that most of what follows could be consciously developed by HSPs when the ability was useful rather than being innate. But perhaps they are more innate than we think. So I thought it would be fun for you to think about these in yourself. Do you have some sensitivities more than others? Or sorely lack one? Could that particular ability be innate? If so, and you lack it, you could still develop it using your overall sensitivity, but it would require a conscious intention.
The sensitivities listed below are all in terms of how a particular innate ability that is related to sensitivity could help an individual survive better than another, so they have a “ranking” flavor to them. But these abilities could all be used equally well to help others.
Social Sensitivity, in the sense of being able to evaluate the trustworthiness of others. When an individual observes that a cooperative strategy yields more for everybody, as many HSPs do, being socially sensitive is important for picking up on who are the free loaders. These are the ones who act cooperative but really contribute almost nothing or even use others’ work to get ahead and seize power or resources in a very uncooperative way. Dragging them along is a burden that weakens the cooperative members of the group.
Cooperation and free loading are two strategies found in almost all animal groups and maintain an uneasy balance, or else there are cycles in which one predominates, than the other. In a cooperative group, free loaders are bound to step in and try to benefit from the efforts of others that are being willingly shared. If only some free load, you get that uneasy balance. But if too many do it, you have a group of all free loaders. They will feed off each other rather than getting anything done. So two in that group are always bound to realize working together benefits them more, and then they move off and become a cooperative group, free of free loaders. Others join them, and eventually one in the group figures out that free loading is easier, others catch on, and so it goes.
See why politics never seem to change? The minority starts out cooperating, gets power and becomes the majority. Some of them (not all) use their power to start free loading. When enough do it, the public finds out and votes in the other party again. A third group, “police,” sometimes evolve in groups to catch free loaders (thieves). This creates more stability, until free loaders develop within the police.
Grim? Well, at least it isn’t just “dog eat dog.” Cooperation exists and we can maintain it by promoting cooperative values (religion has often served this function well). But we must not be naÃ¯ve enough to think that no one will become a free loader. To take care of that we need rules, and police to enforce them–police who have clearly adopted our cooperative values, and still we have to police the police on occasion too. Above all, we do not become free loaders ourselves or allow our children to be!
Environmental Sensitivity, in the sense of being able to alter how you behave in response to changes in your environment and making use of your observation before others do. Of course you first have to see the change, so that requires perceiving subtle changes and reflecting on what they could mean. For example, at work you notice one morning that your usually cheerful supervisor is withdrawn and irritable. As time goes by, others bother him with questions and receive the kind of negative answers this man usually does not give. So you decide not to ask him anything important. If you know him well enough, you might even say around lunch time, “You seem a bit tense today–anything the matter that you want to talk about?”
Innovation, in the sense that you have observed and reflected enough to come up with a more creative solution than others have.
Social Learning, in the sense that when someone else has a good idea, you are one of the first to notice and make use of it yourself.
General Learning, in the sense that you learn more about your world because you observe and reflect on it more.
Choosiness, in the sense that you notice subtle differences in what is optimal and only choose the best, such as the most nutritious and fresh food. We’ve probably all experienced finding a new getaway spot or a way to stay healthy or save money, and the less sensitively choosy others do not discover it for years, thank goodness.
Reactive, in the sense that your body is sensitive to changes in the environment–you startle easily and react to sights, sounds, and smells when others do not.
Proactive, in the sense that you quickly notice subtle signs that “it’s going to happen again” or “this is the same as that,” enabling you in this case to act more quickly and accurately. For example, the grouchy boss described above has been a grouch before, and you have recognized the pattern: It is usually the first Monday of the month, when he has to report to his even grouchier higher ups. You have learned that your boss always brightens up if you do something thoughtful, so every first Monday you buy an extra donut just for him. (Being proactive is a good strategy in a stable or cyclical environment, but a poor one in a rapidly changing one, as when the boss is fired and your next boss hates donuts.)
Mate Sensitivity, in the sense that whether dating or married, you can quickly assess what it takes to please the partner of your choice, making you The One, not someone else. (This surely applies to making and keeping friends as well.)
Recognizing a Mating Opportunity, in the sense that, well, if you want kids, like sex, or think some love making would help your relationship, you know when to make your move–of course then using your “mate sensitivity” as well.
Sensitivity to visceral reactions or “gut feelings.” They are not always right, of course, but are another source of information when observing and reflecting before acting–a source that is not available to those who do not have this ability.