The concept of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) was first described in 1997 by husband and wife research team Dr Arthur Aron and Dr Elaine Aron. SPS refers to a tendency to process sensory information more thoroughly, which is characterised by heightened emotional reactions to both environmental and social stimuli. The SPS construct draws upon a range of previous research into personality, including introversion in adults, inhibitedness in children, Gray’s biopsychological theory, Dunn’s model of sensory processing, and similar traits in other species.
According to the SPS model, the higher levels of processing sensitivity cause HSPs to more easily be overaroused by sensory input, e.g. strong smells, tastes, temperature, and loud noise. HSPs are also more sensitive to subtle stimuli, employing deeper and more complex processing of information before taking action in novel situations. SPS is related to, but not equivalent with introversion and neuroticism, nor is it a disorder. The trait is estimated to occur in 15-20% of the general population, and can be assessed through the 27-item Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) developed by Aron and Aron.
The HSPS questionnaire has been independently assessed for reliability and validity; however, researchers Evans & Rothbart suggested refinement into a two-factor scale, while another research group proposed dividing the scale into three separate subscales – aesthetic sensitivity, low sensory threshold, and ease of excitation – to highlight more nuanced facets of the trait.
The HSP population are not an homogeneous group: based on published research data, research interviews, and her extensive clinical experience, Dr Elaine Aron estimates that approximately 30% of HSPs are extraverted sensation seekers (related to the behavioral inhibition and behavioral activation systems).
More information on SPS can be obtained at Dr Elaine Aron’s website: hsperson.com.
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