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Highly Sensitive Person

Do People Signal High Sensitivity to Get What They Want?

Signaling high sensitivity is different than being highly sensitive.

Key points

  • Sensory processing sensitivity is a real trait.
  • High sensitivity signaling, however, is entirely different.
  • Recent research found no correlation between being a highly sensitive person and high sensitivity signaling.
  • Sensitivity signaling was correlated with dark triad traits, primarily narcissism and psychopathy.
Cast of Thousands || Shutterstock
Source: Cast of Thousands || Shutterstock

Sensory processing sensitivity is a real trait. Some people genuinely score higher on scales measuring a heightened depth of stimulus processing, higher awareness of subtleties in the environment, and ease of overstimulation. Elaine Aron has spent most of her career studying the "highly sensitive person" and has done a beautiful and important job highlighting the gifts as well as challenges that can come with scoring high on this trait.

High-sensitivity signaling, however, is a whole other thing. I've noticed in recent years a significant increase on social media and even in my university classroom the declaration of high sensitivity as a strategy for obtaining special privileges and getting out of having to do difficult things.

A beautiful and complex trait has become co-opted by some people as a victim-signaling strategy-- "a public and intentional expression of one's disadvantages, suffering, oppression, or personal limitations." Indeed, recent research suggests that victim signaling is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society and can be viewed as an expression of a "culture of victimhood" in which claiming to be a victim isn't in the service of receiving help and assistance for a genuine disadvantage but instead becomes something actually desirable and fashionable in itself.

So what is the correlation between high sensitivity and high-sensitivity signaling? A new study found some very enlightening and surprising results. Researchers Martyna Kajdzik and Marcin Moroń from the University of Silesia Poland created a new scale to measure "signaling high sensitivity." Their final scale included the following items:

  1. I sometimes ask for privileges because of my high sensitivity.
  2. People treat me in a special way because they know how sensitive I am.
  3. When I mention that I am a highly sensitive person, others are more willing to help me.
  4. It is easier for me to persuade someone to support me if I admit that I am a highly sensitive person.
  5. Sometimes I avoid penalties for omissions/mistakes at work when I admit that I am a highly sensitive person.
  6. I sometimes tell others how difficult it is for me because of my high sensitivity.
  7. I happened to say that I am a highly sensitive person so people treat me better.

Most strikingly, there was a zero correlation between sensory processing sensitivity and signaling high sensitivity. That's right, there was no correlation whatsoever between actually being a highly sensitive person and the extent to which a person is a constant signaler of their high sensitivity.

But there's more. While scoring higher in sensory processing sensitivity showed no correlation with the dark triad traits of personality, signaling high sensitivity was used primarily by people high in narcissism and psychopathy. Also, while being a highly sensitive person was related to the "behavior inhibition system" that is designed to avoid negative and fearful responses (which is consistent with prior research), signaling high sensitivity was more related to the "behavioral activation system" that is more about the motivation to approach others (not avoid others) in order to receive personal rewards.

These findings suggest that high sensitivity is not the same as signaling high sensitivity, and that people who tend to regularly signal their high sensitivity in order to be treated specially are probably not actually highly sensitive (by Elaine Aron's definition) but instead are motivated by a drive to exploit resources and receive personal rewards.


Addendum: It's important to note that the measure of narcissism the researchers used is a measure of grandiose narcissism. Some recent research suggests that the highly sensitive person scale is correlated with a different form of narcissism—vulnerable narcissism. Whereas grandiose narcissism involves a sense of pervasive entitlement based on perceived inherent superiority, vulnerable narcissism involves a sense of pervasive entitlement based on perceived fragility or past history of suffering.

Elaine Aron is wary of associating highly sensitive people with vulnerable narcissism (see here), and I share her wariness in associating the two traits conceptually. The word "narcissism" does have a negative connotation and if anything we need to do a better job in our society of celebrating the potential gifts of high sensitivity.

With that said, I do think it's important to add nuance to the complexities of the highly sensitive person and to recognize that there is indeed a potential for excessive self-focus among highly sensitive people and an expectation that people should cater to their high sensitivity at all times, something that can absolutely veer into the realm of entitlement.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Alejandro J. Vivas/Shutterstock

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