The Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person
By Dr. Tracy Cooper
“It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.”
– William James, The Will to Believe
There has been some discussion of late regarding the highly sensitive person (HSP). Many people are becoming aware of this personality trait through new books arriving on the market, new research papers finding publication in peer-reviewed academic journals, and a new documentary film set for release later this spring. With this new awareness there is a segment of the HSP population that is a bit different and worthy of study and explication, that of the high sensation seeker. Sensation seeking is a separate personality trait that approximately 30% of HSPs have. I identify as a sensation seeking HSP myself and have been encouraged to investigate this trait more as I continue my explorations of self-awareness, self-acceptance, and adaptation to a society that seems to marginalize those who do not seem to fit a predetermined range of normalcy. Having never been one to conform to societal expectations I instead determined to better understand how to flourish given who I am and what I am able to embody. In this article I will explain the origins behind sensation seeking and explain briefly how the two traits interact.
The personality trait known as sensation seeking was established through the work of researcher Marvin Zuckerman who has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals and published several books on the subject. (Zuckerman, Kolin, Price, & Zoob, 1964; Fulker, Eysenck, & Zuckerman, 1980; Zuckerman, 1964; 1969; 1971a; 2007; 2009). Zuckerman’s Sensation-Seeking Scale has been reinterpreted a number of times emphasizing one aspect over another. His work established sensation seeking as a trait not given enough importance in “influencing many diverse kinds of human behavior.” (Zuckerman, 1994). The current conceptualization of sensation seeking is a “trait defined by the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience.” (Zuckerman, 1994).
Many people quickly seize on the risk-taking aspect associated with one factor in sensation seeking (thrill and adventure seeking) as not like them, but Zuckerman described risk-taking as a “correlate not an essential part of the definition” (1994). His reasoning is based on the idea that sensation seekers accept or underestimate the risk in order to achieve the experience of the sensation. Once we understand this reasoning (and envision sensation seeking as other than risk-taking) sensation seeking becomes more accessible and potentially informative in our journeys toward self-awareness. In my current ongoing study of sensation seeking HSPs roughly 20% have described themselves as risk takers aligning themselves with thrill and adventure seeking. This minority of the emerging study prefers taking physical risks that provide a “kick” or thrill. Now, let’s look at the other three factors in sensation seeking.
– Experience or novelty seeking. Here the individual seeks out new or novel experiences simply for the sake of the experience itself. This may or may not entail some risk on the part of the individual. This need may be driven by strong curiosity and openness to new experiences. Additionally, sensation seeking has been shown to be strongly correlated to divergent thinking (creativity).
– Disinhibition. This aspect of sensation seeking involves a willingness to step outside societal parameters in search of sensation. Individuals may participate in parties, have varied sexual partners or experiences, take drugs to facilitate altered states of consciousness, create euphoric moods, increase energy, and decrease boredom. Risk-taking may obviously be involved in this and in a way that was not apparent in our first discussion of risk-taking (as thrill seeking). Risk-taking and disinhibition may involve a calculated or miscalculated appraisal of the risk leading to legal, financial, personal, or emotional consequences. As part of the approach/observe paradigm disinhibition may serve as an activating mechanism that propels an individual forward to investigate regardless of the actual risk.
– Susceptibility to boredom. Inner states where the person feels like they are not stimulated within a personally defined range of optimal arousal may experience boredom. Boredom is an aversive state as well as an emotional one where one’s mood is decidedly down or trending toward the negative. For many sensation seekers boredom is a “worst enemy,” and one they will go to great lengths to avoid. A propensity toward boredom can have far-reaching effects in the person’s life on social, career, and relationship levels.
Combined together risk-taking, experience or novelty seeking, disinhibition, and susceptibility to boredom form a complex construct whereby the individual prefers intensity of experience, novelty, variety, and complexity. The trait is largely heritable, but moderated by early environment. Now let’s describe the highly sensitive person before attempting to synthesize the sensation seeking HSP.
Sensory Processing Sensitivity
The work of Elaine Aron and Arthur Aron forms the bulk of the research performed to date into SPS with their first major study taking place in 1997. Their initial foray intended to distinguish the personality characteristic of high sensitivity that comprised 50 percent of their patients. Proposing a new model of sensory processing sensitivity [SPS], Aron and Aron (1997) focused not on any difference in the sense organs themselves, but rather on the way that sensory information is processed in the brain. Pulling from the extensive research on introversion indicating differences in the way input is processed Aron and Aron (1997) suggested a greater capacity for reflection, attention, and discrimination. Further, they cited work on sensory sensitivity by other researchers, most notably Thomas and Chess (1977), who studied low sensory threshold in children, Fine (1972, 1973), who espoused the view that there are differences in sensitivity based on studies of color and weight discrimination tasks, and Mehrabian (1976, 1991) and Mehrabian and O’Reilly (1980), who connected arousability to sensitivity or openness. Establishing tentative links between Gray’s model of anatomical differences in the brain and research related to SPS, including Kagan (1994), Gunnar (1994), and Patterson and Newman (1993), Aron and Aron (1997) proposed a model of SPS that emphasized that a large minority of individuals may possess a greater psychobiological preference for input over output, for reflection over action, and greater consciousness of self and environment.
To research this, Aron and Aron (1997) conducted a series of seven studies designed to better understand the basic characteristics of self-described HSPs. Searching for a core pattern among those basic characteristics Aron and Aron (1997) sought the relation of those items to introversion and emotionality, possible sub-groups of HSPs, and SPS’s relation to childhood experience. Replicating results based on Eysenck (1981) and Mehrabian’s (1976) work, Aron and Aron (1997) developed the HSP scale and compared it to Eysenck’s EPI E scale and the Big Five’s measures of introversion and emotionality (Goldberg, 1990).
Results from these studies indicated that the construct of SPS is partially independent of introversion and emotionality. SPS is a unidimensional construct; SPS is not introversion and emotionality combined; one third of HSPs reported experiencing unhappy childhoods (especially males) with higher scores on introversion and emotionality; and the newly developed HSP scale is reliable with convergent and discriminatory validity (Aron & Aron, 1997). A later revision by Aron, Aron, and Davies (2005) reflected the importance of emotional reactivity in SPS with emotionality now more deeply embedded into the construct. Jaeger (2004) describes it as intensity with HSPs reacting emotionally to a greater degree than the situation may warrant.
The HSP then is an individual who is more emotionally reactive, who processes all experience more deeply in the brain, is highly empathetic, may be overstimulated by certain types of stimulation (on a highly individualized basis), and who is sensitive to subtle sensory stimulation. The HSP prefers to observe before acting, to reflect and plan before moving forward to investigate. The highly sensitive person is generally more concerned with their internal psychic processes than in the external world. It is important to note that 30% of HSPs are extraverts and to some degree make sense of their world through external means.
The question seems to suggest itself at this point: how can an individual who is seemingly designed to observe and think deeply coexist with a separate trait that prefers some degree of disinhibition, a propensity toward boredom, and a strong preference for novelty or new experiences that may involve some degree of risk-taking? A synthesis seems dichotomous at best.
The percentage of sensation seekers in the HSP population is estimated to be around 30%. My current research seems to tentatively back this estimate up. For the 30% of HSPs who are also sensation seekers life is in a constant see-saw motion between preferring, even needing, to seek out new and novel stimulation, while simultaneously feeling constrained by the HSP side that prefers to limit risk, carefully plan, and observe first. The push-pull dynamic has been described as having “one foot on the brake and one on the gas.” This metaphor accurately describes the concurrent dueling inner drives, though offering us little in the way of explanation concerning flourishing. For that let’s look to several components of sensory processing sensitivity and sensation seeking and how they may coexist.
– Curiosity/exploring. HSPs, due to their ability to notice subtleties before others may be curious individuals who are always exploring to some extent. In my survey 97% of participants strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I am curious about many things.”
– Creativity. HSPs are a very creative segment of the overall population. In two studies from 2014 I established and reinforced empirical links that indicated over 90% of participants in a qualitative study were creative and 87% of participants in a quantitative survey strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I am a creative person.”
– Boredom. In my survey 43% of participants strongly agreed or agreed with the statement “I am easily bored.” This seems to indicate that boredom is a significant issue for HSPs and sensation seekers.
The sensation seeking HSP may embody the above qualities with no disruption or tension between the separate traits as both coexist. The real tension may arise when the sensation seeker invokes disinhibition involving risk-taking. This may negatively stimulate the sensitive side who fears the consequences and impulsivity. What may often happen is the sensation seeking side may overrule the sensitive side. This may carry a real personal, emotional, or legal consequence in addition to exhaustion. Many sensation seeking HSPs report problems with exhaustion when the sensation seeking side is indulged too much.
Peaceful coexistence of the two traits in one person is entirely possible, but it does require a deep awareness of one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs and a commitment to a certain amount of moderation. When a successful balance is established the sensation seeking HSP may experience the best of both worlds by embodying a sense of exploration coupled with an appropriate inhibiting mechanism. The suggestion has been made by some that the correlate can be made between sensation seeking HSPs and extraversion. In my current study over 90% of participants have identified as more introverted than extraverted. Moreover, a sensation seeking HSP may be very good at appearing to be an extravert (though they may be more introverted) as they seek out novelty and new experiences. They do appear similar in outgoingness, but participants thus far have emphasized their preference for their inner worlds and a strong need for rest and self-care to avoid exhaustion. In my experience there is a daily energy “budget” one has that may be depleted at a controlled rate throughout the day or all at once in an exciting activity like attending a play or other social function.
Evolutionary basis for the traits
The function of personality traits within the human species follows the evolutionary pattern of challenges from nature, food pressures, and subsequent needs for expansion of territory for new populations. Traits arise as there is a need and stick around until another trait displaces them. The genetic basis for sensation seeking suggests that it served a purpose 50 or 100,000 years ago (the length of time the gene behind sensation seeking has been estimated to have formed) in enabling the species to survive. Traits do not easily disappear from the scene once established because nature tends to favor the simplicity of variations on a theme, rather than complete reinvention.
Sensation seeking was – and may still be – an advantage for those with the trait. For those with the drive to explore, create, experience new and novel stimulation the rewards may not only be the dopamine infusion in the brain, but discovery of new technologies, new ideas, and new processes. However, it would make no sense for all of the species to be high in sensation seeking. Indeed in such a scenario there would be little stability as too many individuals would not possess the inherent stability to staff all of society’s needs! Instead nature balances high and low sensation seekers and diminishes high sensation seeking as one grows older. In times when there seem to be no new frontiers, no new and novel stimulation it is more likely those individuals high in the trait will turn to disinhibition, thrill and adventure seeking in search of their sensations or optimal level of arousal. It’s likely no coincidence that literally thousands of people signed up for a one way trip to Mars on the Mars One Initiative! Sensation seekers would probably always be the first to volunteer for anything new and interesting (even if it meant a one way trip to another planet).
Sensory processing sensitivity represents the opposite pole of the approach/observe paradigm. HSPs in an ancient world would likely be more inclined to stay back and observe before moving forward to investigate. HSPs prefer to plan carefully before acting on an impulse. The HSP is a finely tuned organism capable of exquisite awareness of stimuli. Because of that sensitivity in the ancient world HSPs were able to fill a multitude of roles. Just as in the modern world HSPs are distributed across the spectrum of careers and disciplines it is likely that HSPs (and SPS) served to enhance the survivability of the species by embodying deep thinking, careful planning, creativity, high empathy, and an ability to notice subtleties before others. As for sensation seeking the modern world may seem like it devalues those who do not fit a narrow range of normalcy, but nature does not quickly dispatch personality traits on the basis of arbitrary social norms.
The challenge for sensation seeking HSPs is finding ways to successfully modulate their needs for the new and novel with needs for caution and self-care. When a reasonable balance is struck between sensation seeking and high sensitivity the result can be a dynamically charged individual capable of immense creative and intellectual efforts.
There are larger implications for human flourishing inherent in this research.
– First, our educational system is in need of greater sensitivity to individual differences. If we can have choices in every other aspect of our lives (infinite choices of color, size, make and model) why is education still embracing a one-size-fits-all approach where mediocrity is too often the result?
– Second, if HSPs serve a larger function in society as proverbial canaries in the coal mine – due to their ability to notice subtleties before others – what are they telling us and how should we reform society in ways that push the boundaries for what is “acceptable” in terms of a range of behaviors.
– Third, HSS/HSPs do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they live amongst the rest of society at every level of career and station in life. HSS/HSPs as highly creative individuals with a natural drive to explore and experience embody great potential within society for betterment if they are recognized as such and supported.
– Lastly, the percentage of individuals who report feeling they have had great difficulty living up to their full potential seems to suggest a need to reform society in ways that provide better early education, especially with regard to emotional intelligence. Helping HSS/HSPs know themselves better may help them set more realistically attainable goals and be more resilient when they fall short of their own high standards.
An article of this length can only hope to open the dialog on sensation seeking HSPs and is by no means exhaustive. Further research is needed that addresses the HSS/HSP population directly on multiple levels. There seems to be tremendous potential in better understanding and appreciating the HSS/HSP. It is hoped that this development of a greater understanding will result in changes at the personal, family, and societal levels to ensure every person is best supported in reaching his full potential.
Dr. Cooper offers one-on-one consulting for the highly sensitive person on the topics of career and the sensation seeking HSP. His web site may accessed at the address below.
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