Oct 26, 2012

Highly Sensitive People and Socionics

last edit: 31 Oct 2012 (theta brain state)


I recently learned of a trait commonly termed "Highly Sensitive Person," or HSP. This is a trait I have long wondered about in myself and others and have called different names at different times (e.g. self-awareness, introspectiveness, sensitivity, etc.). I used to loosely associate it with ectomorphy; I think I was identifying a kind of ectomorphic variety of high sensitivity and ignoring other varieties. Since then I've noticed HSP traits in people of different somatotypes.

After investigating the subject, I'm convinced that it is a very influential personality trait that has important ramifications for intertype relations and personal development. So influential is the trait that HSPs may be practically untypeable socionically, having a set of traits that appears to conflict with or override typical type traits.

Further information online

In addition to the Wikipedia article, there is some really good information available in research articles on Elaine Aron's site, as well as large amounts of personal accounts and feel-good sites on the subject online. Lots of podcasts and interviews on the subject can also be found.


According to studies, 15-20% of the population is HSP, and the numbers are evenly distributed among men and women and hetero- and homosexuals. The numbers are about the same for different nationalities, though different cultures may be more (e.g. Japan) or less (e.g. U.S.) accepting of the trait. Of particular interest is that the trait is also observed in animal species.

Psychological and physiological aspects

It is speculated that roughly 50% of psychologists' clients are HSPs. HSPs are more sensitive to childhood experience and display more maladaptive behavior with suboptimal upbringing and more well-adapted behavior with optimal upbringing relative to non-HSP children.

HSPs appear to be more prone to certain mental and physical conditions, such as neuroses, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, etc. Their brains appear to spend more time in theta state — typically, a drowsy or meditative state — which may indicate more reflection/"recharging" and deeper processing of impressions received during their daily activities.

I would estimate that 30-50% of socionics aficionados are HSPs and that these are many of the same HSPs that are likely to end up in counsellors' offices.

HSP and Asperger's Syndrome

Both of these groups have their online "fans" and often resemble pop-psychology. I've seen lists of famous people who supposedly had that or the other trait, and there was quite a bit of overlap... My personal opinion is that many psychological conditions are overdiagnosed. I myself have been wrongly labled as "high-functioning autistic" by at least two non-specialists who only saw me in certain settings. Of course, this did nothing to improve our interaction... While many AS and HSP online hobbyists seem confused about which diagnosis to give themselves, this article makes a good attempt at separating the two.

Difficulties with the HSP construct

Upon learning about HSPs, a lightbulb flashes on in your mind and many things begin to make sense. Then, once you start identifying sensitivity levels in different people, you realize that each HSP has a different variety of sensitivity, making it hard to generalize. Things that you would tend to attribute to sensitivity in yourself are absent in other HSPs, and vice versa. The search for an overarching, fundamental HSP trait runs into the needle-in-the-haystack problem that plagues socionics and other personality characterizations.

The exact nature of high sensitivity is not yet entirely clear (e.g. "processing sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly"), but there are some interesting lines of research that suggest that the trait can be pinned down physiologically and/or through behavioral testing. That is much better than personality questionnaires which are subject to biases and misinterpretation.

A problem with practical application of the HSP construct is that it has no well-developed counter-category with a potentially positive image — e.g. "low sensitivity person, or LSP." People only read about HSPs and may incorrectly self-identify with it because it seems to suggest creativity or intelligence or provide justification for problems they may have experienced. HSPs, on the other hand, are probably unlikely to wrongly identify themselves as non-HSPs.

Highly Sensitive People and Personality Type

In terms of the MBTI, introverted intuiters were most likely to be HSP, followed by extroverted intuiters and lastly by introverted sensers. Most HSPs are MBTI introverts, and extroverted sensers were not found among the admittedly small sample group studied (I believe under 30). Keeping in mind MBTI type skews relative to socionics, I would expect the trait to be more evenly distributed among the socionics types. For instance, I think I have known at least two SLE HSPs and at least one LSI, two LSEs, a few ESEs, two ESIs, and probably at least one SEE, not to mention many intuiters and SEIs and SLIs.

One can take the approach of examining the trait in isolation from socionics types, or in the context of types. The second approach might help one to identify the uniquely HSP-specific characteristics that are always present regardless of the type, but the risk is becoming too conceptual about the trait. The first approach often leads people to inject too many of their own individual qualities and experiences into the trait.

Effects of sensitivity on socionic type

High sensitivity seems to have a huge effect on personality. In my experience, the HSPs I know are all psychologists in a way and are particularly sensitive to other people's emotional lives and internal experience. They are all at least a bit brooding and are introspective and focused on processing their personal experiences. This is true whether their type is IEI or SLE, EII or LSE.

Such is the sensitivity of HSPs that an HSP LSE may be far more interested and thoughtful about things like perception, trauma, and overcoming internal obstacles than a non-HSP EII (this is coming from my personal experience). Non-HSP LSEs may listen to discussions of these topics with interest, but they have relatively little to say about them or their comments lack depth.

HSP SLEs, LSIs, ESIs, LSEs, etc. tend to lack the callousness that is often attributed to their types. On a philosophical level, HSP types with extraverted sensing (SLE, SEE, LSI, ESI) may reject any form of interpersonal coercion and may be wholly uninterested in politics, power, etc. They may often seem "unsure of themselves" or hesitant, and their extraverted sensing may seem to "flicker" on and off. Of course, this is all happening in the mind of the observer, who has a construct of what extraverted sensing is and is not. Without that mental construct, there's probably nothing particularly paradoxical about an HSP's behavior.

HSP ILEs and IEEs I have known (myself included) appear less extraverted than their non-HSP counterparts. More time is spent ruminating about things within oneself, and less time is spent gathering and distributing "random," superficial information, which is more typical of non-HSP ILEs and IEEs.

Effects of sensitivity on socionics schools

The best example of this I can think of is the contrast between Yermak's hard-headed analytical socionics and Gulenko's School of Humanitarian Socionics. Both are LIIs, but the first is non-HSP while the second is HSP.

Effects of sensitivity on intertype relations

HSP-ness seriously impacts intertype relations. The "truest" form of many potentially adverse intertype relations, for instance, is when an HSP is affected by a non-HSP. In other words, an HSP SLE may be more traumatized by a non-HSP ESI than a non-HSP SLE. Put an HSP ESI in place of the non-HSP, and the "supervision" would likely be seriously altered. A HSP IEE might not be much of a "supervisor" at all to a non-HSP ESI. The effect of the supervision might be so gentle as to basically be negligible for the ESI. In fact, the "supervisor" HSP IEE might well experience more distress as a result of the interaction as the "supervisee" ESI.

An HSP child might find even virtually optimal intertype relations with parents to be "traumatic," while another non-HSP child gets by just fine with parents from a completely different quadra. HSPs seem to need things to be "just right" in order to feel good in relationships and in general in life. As a missionary at age 19-21, I experienced many varieties of poor-to-awful relationships and just a few good relationships with missionary companions, while many non-HSPs seemed to "have a great time" with just about everyone they worked and lived with. So much for intertype relations!

Duality and sensitivity

Dual relationships may be quite different depending on partners' sensitivity levels. Two HSPs will probably have higher levels of understanding, but may need to take great care to regulate personal space and autonomy in order to avoid feeling "repressed." An HSP with a non-HSP may experience less mutual understanding, but the non-HSP may provide a greater degree of emotional stability in the relationship. Two non-HSPs may have a more stable and conventional relationship and fewer problems regulating optimal emotional/physical distance.

These are just suggestions, since I would need a lot more relationship experience than I have to make any far-reaching generalizations. Elaine Aron comes to similar conclusions, saying that both combinations have pros and cons but that she believes two HSPs together is probably a better combination than an HSP with a non-HSP.


I'm particularly interested in readers' comments on this post. I'm sure people will have a lot to say. 


friemelaar said...

Words fail to express how awesome this is - honestly spot-on, mate.

You've probably managed to explain most deviations from the socionic "relationship templates" that appear when more or less sane people collaborate at a close psychological distance.

Or that's what I think, anyway - cheers and keep up the good work :)


Aleesha said...

The HSP construct certainly a very interesting one. Have you read any of Elaine Aron's books? She does describe a counter-category called "High Sensation Seekers" (more the subject of Marvin Zuckerman's research than hers) in "The Highly Sensitive Person in Love". She poetically describes HSPs as "priestly advisers" and HSSs as "warrior kings".

What's interesting is that the HSP and HSS traits are not mutually exclusive, so you can have 4 "types" of people, and I'll quote from "HSPs in Love" here --

"1. HSPs/non-HSSs. They are usually reflective and tend to be happy with a quiet life; not impulsive, not seeing much reason to take risks.
2. HSSs/non-HSPs. They are usually curious, eager, impulsive, quick to take risks, and easily bored; not very aware of subtleties in a situation or even interested in them.
3. Non-HSPs/non-HSSs. They are low in curiosity, low in the tendency to reflect deeply, just living their lives in a simple, natural way.
4. HSPs/HSSs. They certainly have versatility, a combination of the HSP's vision and the HSS's drive, but their optimal level of arousal is very narrow because they are easily overwhelmed and easily bored; they are often conflicted, in that they want new experiences but do not want to be over-aroused or take big risks. As one HSP/HSS said, "It feels like I always have one foot on the gas, one on the brakes.""

(Based on my own investigation, there appears to be an overlap in the described traits of the HSP and the anxious temperament, the HSS and the hyperthymic temperament, and the HSP/HSS with the cyclothymic temperament.)

I would agree with your observations about its effect on type, and I would also add that the HSP/HSS "type" can obscure the socionic type even more as they tend to be entirely inconsistent as people.

Rick said...

Aleesha, yes, I've read Elaine Aron's first and most important book and found it quite interesting, if not a bit frustrating in some of the same ways socionics is frustrating (nearly everyone wants to be recognized as "sensitive" in some way, etc.). But yes, I think I can see that for myself (HSP/HSS type person) it is a constant challenge to get things "just right" so that I have a lot of interesting and stimulating things going on — meeting people, interesting conversation, mental stimulation, etc. — but without negative side-effects such as inability to rest and effectively change gears.

Basically anything that lowers cortisol is helpful in counteracting overarousal. Recently I have begun meditating several minutes a day, and it seems to be a kind of universal treatment. I'll probably practice it for the rest of my life.