Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Time Magazine: "The Power of (Shyness)" and High Sensitivity

We are not always shy or introverted, but "Quiet" describes HSPs

To the highly sensitive persons of the world and their friends: A hearty congratulations. In a sense, we made the cover of Time. No, we are not necessarily shy and not always introverted, but the book which prompted the article, Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, is actually more about HSPs than social introverts, so we're getting there. Perhaps in a year or two the highly sensitive person will be Time's person of the year!

I am very sorry, however, that the 30% of "HSPs" who are social extraverts were left out of all of this. Please see my earlier post on sensitivity and introversion. Yes, the Time article is such a huge, huge step. We can surely thank Susan Cain for it. Quiet is an enormously entertaining book, even though it, and thus the Time article, do blur the lines. Her discussion of "introversion" throughout is almost identical to what has become the standard definition of high sensitivity—deep thinkers, preferring to process slowly, sensitive to stimuli, emotionally reactive, needing time alone, and so forth, all as described in the first scientific paper specifically on sensitivity, published in 1997, where it was systematically distinguished from the most common scientific definitions of introversion, which emphasize the social side.

Cain's Quiet does usually have the trait right, if not the name, and there is certainly justification for confusion given the overlap, that 70% of HSPs are social introverts. She does nicely acknowledge the work I and others have done on sensitivity, and perhaps refers to my conversations with her in her Author's Note, where she says she spoke to many people, some of whom "informed almost every sentence I wrote." I did speak with her extensively, sharing everything I knew at the time, and in the process asked her strongly not to confuse introversion and sensitivity, for the sake of all the socially extraverted HSPs and simply for scientific accuracy. (I've not helped other authors of books on introversion for these very reasons.) However, I saw that Susan was doing a fantastic job of researching what she was writing about and that she would write the book anyway. I figured it would be better to have the right information in there about high sensitivity, however it was termed.

The problem is really not Susan's. She admits she is not a scientist, but studying a cultural phenomenon—how people think about those they call introverts. The problem is in how researchers have viewed and measured "introversion" up until now. Indeed, even recent measures of introversion simply make it whatever an outgoing extravert is not, which has actually amounted to defining introversion as "a lack of positive emotion." That certainly does not fit HSPs or those Susan Cain is generally describing. Well, we can all take comfort that more research will be done, more books will be written, and it will be straightened out eventually.

As a side note, when I began studying sensitivity, I also thought it would be the same as introversion, and if you use Carl Jung's original definition of introversion (see the fourth paragraph), they are the same concept. I've written a scientific paper on Jung and sensitivity that goes into the relationship of introversion and sensitivity in depth. But again, what researchers and the public usually mean by introversion is social introversion—not talking much, not liking to meet new people. This is an easy way to categorize people, using what you can see. But it misses what is happening inside, which is what I had to focus on once I found those pesky 30% of sensitive people who were describing themselves as talking a lot, liking to meet new people, having a lot of friends, and enjoying large parties. Yet otherwise they were like the other 70%—sensitive to pain, caffeine, and loud noise; not liking pressure; being easily overstimulated; and so forth. So they also needed plenty of down time away from others, unlike most extraverts. As a result of them, I had to refine my thinking and my terms.

Well, whatever we name this trait, the most recent research suggests that the general strategy of being more sensitive is determined by multiple genes, and these do not come with names on them. We scientists are creating the names—introverted, inhibited, shy, sensitive, responsive. As we learn more, we will become more accurate. For now, if you are socially extraverted yet feel things deeply, ponder the meaning of life, reflect before acting, and need a lot of down time, please, be patient. If you are socially introverted but not especially bothered by loud noise, are not very emotional, and make decisions rather easily, please also be patient. We'll get it right about you, too.

Bottom line: If someone asks you about the article, say "Oh yes, she calls it introversion but what she's actually describing is high sensitivity, which has been well researched." You could add something like, "She didn't realize that 30% of the people she's talking about are just like her introverts except socially they are outgoing."

More from Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today