The word “sensitive” is often linked to tangled meanings, depending on who is using the word and the situation in which it is used. Being called “sensitive” can mean that one sees you as thoughtful. Being called “too sensitive” can mean one sees you as weak. Being called “sensitive” can either cut you down or raise you up — that’s the power of language and a culture that hasn’t decided on a word’s definition.
Scientists, however, are attempting to remedy this murkiness with what they do best: science. In a study released this month in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, a team of researchers became the first to quantify the proportion of differences in sensitivity that can be explained by genetic factors. Some people are more sensitive than others. According to the study, 47 percent of these differences are due to genetics, while 53 percent are driven by environmental factors.
“The biggest misconception regarding sensitivity is that people think sensitivity reflects weakness and vulnerability,” senior author Michael Pluess, a professor of developmental psychology at Queen Mary University of London, tells Inverse.
“Sensitivity has many strengths, such as good awareness of what is going on around us, empathy, more creative thinking, the ability to deeply process and think about big issues, etcetera. Society desperately needs people with these skills.”
In studies, sensitivity is typically used to describe how strongly one is affected by positive or negative experiences. Pluess notes that, importantly, more sensitive people are not only more affected by negative experiences, they also benefit more than others from positive experiences. They perceive and process their experiences more deeply.
“Sensitivity can be defined as the ability to perceive and process information about the environment,” Pluess says. “Sensitive people feel more easily stressed by a deadline but are also especially empathetic and good in understanding people.”
In the study, Pluess and his colleagues evaluated 1,800 twins and 1,000 identical twins. The twins filled out a questionnaire designed to test an individual’s levels of sensitivity to the environment and to tease out different types of sensitivity. Twins were used because they give scientists the opportunity to tease out the influence of environments and genetics. Twins who grow up together are influenced by the same environment, while identical twins share the same genes.
Ultimately, the study found that some people are more sensitive than others, and about half the time that difference can be credited to genes.
This jibes with past research that stressed a connection between sensitivity and genetics. Previous research, Pluess explains, has found that around a third of people are at the higher end of the sensitivity spectrum. He says that while three different theories on sensitivity emerged in the mid-’90s, it’s the more recent theory of differential susceptibility that “emphasized the genetic roots of the trait.” That theory was presented in 2009.
Pluess hopes this research can lead to the trait of sensitivity being taken more seriously and considered more widely.
“We also hope that sensitive people will be able to accept their specific personality knowing that there is a biological basis to it,” Pluess says.