Being ‘Sensitive’ Isn’t Considered a Personality Trait. Here’s Why That Needs to Change.

A highly sensitive person sitting with her hand on her chin in a thinking posture

Scientists don’t include sensitivity in the ‘Big 5’ personality traits. They might be making a mistake.

When you’re often misunderstood by society at large, there is something innately comforting about having your personality defined.

This is why personality tests are so popular. From the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram to one’s Hogwarts House and “What Disney Character are You?” quiz, it seems like there are endless ways to categorize and characterize who we are. We thoughtfully answer the questions, read the results, and breathe out a sigh of relief. This describes me. I feel understood.

Personally, one of the most profound times of feeling seen after taking such a test was upon completing a test by Dr. Elaine Aron to see if I was a highly sensitive person (HSP). Finally, here was something that truly described me: Yes, I do feel my emotions very deeply. Yes, I do have a strong sense of empathy for others. Yes, I do get easily overstimulated. Learning this information helped me to, in turn, know myself better.

Several years later, as a psychotherapist, I have assisted many of my clients in learning more about, and embracing, their own sensitivity. Yet, for many, they are still unaware that HSPs exist, or see sensitivity as a detriment rather than a strength. Part of the reason for this might be that sensitivity is not currently defined as a personality trait, but rather, a temperament. 

So what is personality anyway? And does sensitivity deserve to be recognized as such?

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The Science Behind Personality 

Researcher Dr. David Funder defines personality traits as “patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior that are relatively consistent over time and across situations.” Consistency is key here — meaning, although some elements of who we are change and evolve over time, our core personality remains fairly stable. 

Temperament, although related to personality, does have some key differences, discussed in further detail below. And when assessing who we are as a person, the focus is on personality traits rather than temperament. 

Research and assessment psychologists utilize what’s known as “The Big Five” when assessing personality traits. This model of personality has been the most widely researched, and, therefore, is the most evidence-based. As the name suggests, the Big Five focuses on five dimensions of personality, which you can remember with the acronym OCEAN: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

Within each of the Big Five, there are six facets that further describe each domain. 

  • Openness to Experience includes fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas, and values. 
  • Conscientiousness includes competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, and deliberation. 
  • Extraversion includes warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement-seeking, and positive emotions. (Note: introversion is part of the same continuum as extraversion in personality science.) 
  • Agreeableness includes trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, and tender-mindedness. 
  • Neuroticism includes anxiety, anger/hostility, depression, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, and vulnerability. 

Finally, it should be noted that unlike some other measurements of personality, like the MBTI, the Big Five looks at each trait on a spectrum rather than as an either-or. 

Sensitivity as a Temperament 

Since sensitivity is not in the aforementioned Big Five, it would therefore fall into the temperament category by default. Temperamental traits have been defined as “early emerging basic dispositions in the domains of activity, affectivity, attention, and self-regulation, and these dispositions are the product of complex interactions among genetic, biological, and environmental factors across time” by researchers. 

These same researchers expanded upon the connection between temperament and personality: Both of these have the same roots, with temperament being more established in one’s early years. 

One’s personality then develops on top of their temperament, with their personality maturing over time. 

Researchers generally agree that temperament is formed earlier on in life than personality is, and is based more heavily on genetics than environmental factors. In other words, temperament prefers nature over nurture, whereas personality draws from both, perhaps with a slight preference toward nurture. Further, researchers also tend to agree that personality expands from one’s temperament.

Seeing Personality vs. Temperament in Action

Let’s further illustrate the difference between personality and temperament with an example: For someone who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), their ADHD may impact their temperament, but not necessarily their personality. For instance, ADHD may influence one’s temperament in their ability to sustain attention or make them prone to hyperactivity. Yet despite a predisposition toward some temperamental similarities, different individuals with ADHD will vary in where they land on each of the Big Five personality traits. 

Just as we wouldn’t say that having ADHD is part of one’s personality, we can recognize that personality traits expand above and beyond our temperamental basis. Furthermore, these temperamental traits of attention and hyperactivity may be noticeable as early as infancy, which is consistent with what we know about temperament. This is in contrast with the Big Five personality traits, since we tend to recognize these traits, such as conscientiousness, once we become more self-aware.

While most of us are here because we are HSPs, sensitivity, like any other trait, is on a continuum. It is estimated that approximately 40 percent of people fall within the average range of sensitivity, 20 percent fall within the low range of sensitivity, and 30 percent fall within the high range of sensitivity. The most current scientific term for the latter group is environmental sensitivity. (If you’ve heard it called sensory processing sensitivity, or SPS, that is one of several theories of how sensitive works, and it’s covered under the “umbrella” of environmental sensitivity.) Those who score high for environmental sensitivity are also known as highly sensitive people.

Regarding the Big Five, studies have shown that, in adults, environmental sensitivity is correlated with Openness to Experience and Neuroticism, but not Conscientiousness, Extraversion, or Agreeableness. (There is a slight correlation with scoring lower on Extraversion, or being more introverted, although not all sensitive people are introverts.) That same study found that, in children, the only personality trait correlated with sensitivity is Neuroticism. 

There are some important factors to keep in mind, however, which I get into below.

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4 Reasons Why Sensitivity Should Be Redefined as a Personality Trait

1. Sensitivity is distinct from the Big 5 traits.

Although sensitivity does correlate with neuroticism, the two have been repeatedly shown to be different. In fact, in one early study, researchers drawing on a battery of seven sets of personality tests to were able to tease sensitivity apart from each of the Big 5 traits, as well as emotionality, a lesser-known trait. Likewise, in a much more recent 2020 paper, researchers seeking an integrated theory of sensitivity conducted a series of studies and reconfirmed that sensitivity is its own trait. In their words: “Differences in sensitivity are not completely explained by the common Big Five personality traits.” 

In other words: a person’s score in any of the Big 5 traits does not determine their score for sensitivity, suggesting it is a unique dimension of personality all its own. 

2. Sensitivity seems to change over time.

One important difference between temperament and personality is that temperament is largely genetic, and tends to stay mostly the same for life. Personality, while having a genetic component, tends to change more in response to to life experiences. By that standard, sensitivity does seem to fit personality more than temperament. 

That’s because researchers using twin studies have pinpointed sensitivity to be only 47 percent genetic and 53 percent based on environment and experience. Moreover, they’ve found that sensitivity tends to be more useful in some environments than others, and people seem to “fine tune” how sensitive they are based on the environment they’re in. (There are limits, of course. If you were born a highly sensitive person due to your genes, you’ll probably always score around the higher end of the scale, but your exact score — and how sensitive you feel — will go up or down depending on life experience.) 

We saw something similar in the studies above, too: remember how the personality traits correlated with sensitivity varied somewhat in children versus in adults? Those traits, and sensitivity itself, seem to shift over time, and not always in the same direction. 

3. Sensitivity fits the definition of a personality trait more closely than it does a temperamental trait. 

While there may be some indicators of high sensitivity from early on in life, one’s level of sensitivity is more likely to be noticed around the same time other personality traits, like extroversion and agreeableness, start to develop and solidify. 

Additionally, returning to the very definition of personality, sensitivity impacts the ways we think, feel, and behave on a comparable level to other personality traits. I think deeply because I am highly sensitive; I feel strongly because I am highly sensitive; I behave in ways that reflect my highly sensitive nature, such as acting compassionately towards others and frequently needing alone time and retreating into my own inner world. I am the way that I am because of sensitivity, just as sensitivity is a core part of who I am. I imagine, fellow HSP, that you can resonate with this, given how our sensitivity impacts so many facets of our being.

4. Redefining sensitivity as a personality trait could be beneficial — for one, it can lessen shame around it.

Because sensitivity has long been misunderstood by society, this has resulted in many of us experiencing shame around being highly sensitive. Similar to how Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, educated people about introversion as a personality trait, if sensitivity was viewed as simply another dimension of personality, this would result in less stigma around being sensitive, and more people embracing their sensitive nature. 

Further, if sensitivity were closer to the forefront of discussions around personality, perhaps more people could find out that they, too, are an HSP sooner. 

Do you remember what it was like finding out that you are a highly sensitive person? Perhaps this gave you permission to be your sensitive self. And, at the end of the day, that’s all any of us want. And we all deserve permission to be who we authentically are.

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