New Research Explores The Psychology And Personality Of A 'Sensitive Soul'
Psychologist Michael Pleuss sheds light on the personality traits that make you more susceptible to emotional impact.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 25, 2023
A new study published in the Journal of Research and Psychology reveals that while all people are somewhat impacted by their experiences, the degree to which they get affected can differ widely, with certain personality traits determining how much someone is affected emotionally by their circumstances.
To dive deeper into what makes some 'sensitive souls' more deeply stirred by life's happenings and how this impacts their experiences, I recently spoke to psychologist Michael Pleuss of the University of Surrey in England who shared his insights on:
- The crucial role of personality traits
- The advantages and challenges experienced by people on either end of the sensitivity spectrum
- How to navigate life's emotional journey
Here is a summary of our conversation.
What prompted you to investigate different levels of sensitivity and their influence on the experiences of different individuals?
As I was studying Psychology, I was particularly interested in individual differences, that some people are more affected by their experiences than others. During my Ph.D., I worked with Prof. Jay Belsky on his idea of Differential Susceptibility, a theory that suggests that some children are more susceptible to environmental influences, not only negative but also positive ones.
Under Jay's supervision, we investigated differential susceptibility as a function of infant temperament and various genetic factors. During that time I reached out to Elaine Aron who published work on Sensory Processing Sensitivity and created a questionnaire to measure sensitivity. Together with her and her husband Arthur Aron, we developed a child version of the questionnaire which allowed us to measure sensitivity more directly.
What are some reliable ways to measure how sensitive a person is?
We have questionnaires that measure an individual's sensitivity. The Highly Sensitive Person scale for adults and the Highly Sensitive Child scale for children. These questionnaires are not perfect but they seem to do a good job at identifying an individual's level of sensitivity. A few years ago we launched our website, www.sensitivityresearch.com, where people can complete these questionnaires online. There are also other measures available, such as behavior observation in children but they are more difficult to apply. We don't yet have a physiological or neurological measure of sensitivity.
Is sensitivity also related to any other common personality traits? What are the typical 'personality profiles' of both highly and less sensitive individuals?
Yes, sensitivity measure with the Highly Sensitive Person and Highly Sensitive Child scales is associated with both heightened Neuroticism and Openness to Experiences (as well as reduced Extraversion).
Highly sensitive individuals seem to score high on Neuroticism and Openness to Experiences and a little bit lower on Extraversion. Less sensitive individuals have been less investigated so far.
Do highly sensitive individuals react differently to different experiences – either positive or negative?
Our research and the work of others suggests that highly sensitive individuals are more affected by their experiences. They are more likely to develop problems when experiencing stress and adversity, but also benefit more from positive experiences such as supportive and caring parenting, or psychological intervention.
Based on your research, what do you think would make for a more ideal personality trait in terms of navigating daily life – high or low sensitivity?
Both low and high sensitivity have their pros and cons. One is not better than the other. Low-sensitive individuals might be more resilient when facing adversity but also fail to benefit from positive experiences. Highly sensitive individuals are more vulnerable to adverse experiences but respond particularly strongly to positive experiences.
Is it possible for sensitive individuals to regulate their response to their environment? Any advice for people who feel the need to regulate their sensitivity to their environment?
Yes, I would think so. It is particularly important for highly sensitive individuals to be able to self-regulate their emotions, thoughts, and actions. The more they are able to do so, the better. But self-regulation is important for all people, whether low or highly sensitive.
I would say that it all starts with self-awareness, being aware of your own sensitivity, the positives as well as the negatives. Then it is also important to have a good arsenal of coping strategies to avoid overstimulation, stress, and anxiety. And, finally, make sure to consciously use the positive aspects of sensitivity, such as being able to read other people, empathy, an eye for detail, etc.