Is the sensitivity personality trait legitimate?

High sensitivity: The dispute over sensitivity

In addition to this original, English-language test, there are translations and modified versions that have not been scientifically examined on the Internet and in guidebooks. In addition, what all test procedures have in common is that it is not clear where the line between particularly sensitive and normally sensitive people actually runs. Psychologist Sandra Konrad considers it possible that sensitivity is a constant characteristic that is present in every person to a greater or lesser extent - and that highly sensitive people represent one end of this spectrum. However, other proponents of the concept assume that highly sensitive people live in a world of their own, so to speak: According to them, their subjective experience should not only differ in nuances from that of other people, but should also be fundamentally different. However, this has not been proven.

High sensitivity and giftedness: a misunderstood connection

The impression that highly sensitive people are always gifted, i.e. that they have extraordinary intelligence, is wrong. Of course, there are some people who share both traits. According to the current state of research, however, only around two percent of the population are highly gifted - that is, they have an intelligence quotient of 130 or higher - while around 20 percent of people describe themselves as "fairly" or "extremely sensitive". The misunderstanding could have arisen, among other things, from the fact that advice books often attribute a special talent to highly sensitive people. On closer inspection, however, this usually does not mean cognitive abilities, but talents in the musical, artistic or interpersonal area.

However, there is also criticism of Elaine Aron's original test. For example, she assumed that her questionnaire was one-dimensional, i.e. it measured a self-contained property. Many research colleagues doubt this because the questions capture experiences in very different areas of life. In addition to the reaction to strong sensory impressions, for example, how well the respondents can cope with a high workload or whether they were remembered by parents and teachers for a sensitive or shy child.

In the meantime, some recent studies speak against the assumption that high sensitivity is a single, coherent construct. In 2008, for example, the well-known American temperament researcher Mary Rothbart and her colleague David Evans submitted the questionnaire to around 300 psychology students. On the basis of the response patterns, the two calculated that Aron's test actually recorded two separate characteristics: On the one hand, "negative affect", i.e. the general tendency towards feelings such as fear, anger or sadness. This is responsible for the fact that highly sensitive people feel uncomfortable more quickly when faced with overstimulation. And on the other hand there is a dimension that can be described as "aesthetic sensitivity". It describes the receptivity or sensitivity to new impressions. Those who achieve higher values ​​here also state, for example, that they were deeply touched by music or art.

A 2015 study by the Canadian psychologists Karin Sobocko and John Zelenski showed how opposing these two facets are. While the questions in Aron's test that relate to over-excitability and negative affect were related in her study to characteristics such as neuroticism and appeared to have an adverse effect on life satisfaction, the results of the "aesthetic sensitivity" subscale pointed in the opposite direction: people with high Values ​​on this dimension tend not to suffer from their high sensitivity, but rather feel good, develop diverse interests and are open to new experiences.

The authors conclude that Elaine Aron's scale measures different types of sensitivity. The personality psychologist Jens Asendorpf also considers the construct to be inconsistent: "Those who are particularly sensitive to light do not have to be sensitive to noise at the same time. As far as the sensory modalities are concerned, high sensitivity is therefore not a homogeneous property." This complicates research in this area. Sandra Konrad, however, warns against questioning the whole phenomenon due to the scientifically still controversial questionnaire. "Just because the scale is multidimensional doesn't mean the construct is inconsistent," she emphasizes. "People who are emotionally sensitive usually also have finer sensory perception. You can't just separate them."

There is no clear definition

Clearly, there is a need for clarification not only on this point. Even the term "sensitivity" has different meanings in psychology and in everyday language use. The temperament researchers Rothbart and Evans therefore advocate defining the construct clearly. Ideally, highly sensitive people should not just identify themselves using a questionnaire, but rather this finding should be based on physiological measurements. However, there are currently no corresponding studies in which high sensitivity could be objectively determined.