Turns out our genes can impact how sensitive we are

In life, it’s usually beneficial to have a thick skin. If you let every little criticism or setback weigh on you emotionally it won’t take long before the weight is too much to bear. Of course, some people are more sensitive than others. While one person may be on the verge of tears after dropping their lunch on the floor, another can nonchalantly shrug off a breakup or firing like it’s no big deal.

So much about us, from our physical features to predispositions for certain diseases, are determined by our genes, but what about sensitivity? A new study from the Queen Mary University of London analyzed a group of twins to determine if differences in sensitivity are due to genes or environmental factors, and found that the answer is about half and half.

Roughly 1,000 identical and 1,800 nonidentical 17-year old twins took part in this research. Each twin’s emotional responses (sensitivity level) to both positive and negative experiences were compared to one another. While all twins are usually raised and brought up in the same environment or home, only genetic twins share the same genes. Nonidentical twins are just like any other pair of siblings from a genetic perspective.

So, researchers hypothesized that if both identical and nonidentical twins showed the same levels of sensitivity between pairs, then that would confirm that genes don’t influence sensitivity.

This research led the study’s authors to conclude that 47% of sensitivity differences between people stem from genes, meaning that the rest (53%) is influenced by environmental factors. This is the first-ever study to find a conclusive link between genes and sensitivity.

“We are all affected by what we experience – sensitivity is something we all share as a basic human trait. But we also differ in how much of an impact our experiences have on us. Scientists have always thought there was a genetic basis for sensitivity, but this is the first time we’ve been able to actually quantify how much of these differences in sensitivity are explained by genetic factors,” comments study leader Michael Pluess, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the Queen Mary University of London, in a university release.

Among the twins who participated in the research, about half were of the same sex. Initially, all participants were asked to fill out a survey designed to measure their sensitivity. Professor Pluess developed the survey himself and says it was able to determine not only if a person is generally sensitive, but also what they’re most sensitive about (positive moments, troubling experiences, setbacks, etc). These different types of sensitivities appear to have a genetic basis as well, according to the study.

“If a child is more sensitive to negative experiences, it may be that they become more easily stressed and anxious in challenging situations. On the other hand, if a child has a higher sensitivity to positive experiences, it may be that they are more responsive to good parenting or benefit more from psychological interventions at school. What our study shows is that these different aspects of sensitivity all have a genetic basis,” says co-author Dr. Elham Assary.

The research team also looked to see if sensitivity was directly linked to any of the so-called “big five” personality traits; agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness, and conscientiousness. Indeed, they noted a shared genetic tendency for sensitivity, neuroticism, and extraversion.

Finding the right balance when it comes to sensitivity can be tricky. No one wants to hang out with someone who is overly emotional to the point of parody, but at the same time, it’s never a good idea to completely repress one’s feelings. 

“We know from previous research that around a third of people are at the higher end of the sensitivity spectrum. They are generally more strongly affected by their experiences,” professor Pluess concludes. “This can have both advantages and disadvantages. Because we now know that this sensitivity is as much due to biology as the environment, it is important for people to accept their sensitivity as an important part of who they are and consider it as a strength not just as a weakness.”

“Stop being so sensitive” is a term thrown around a lot these days, but this study just goes to show that sensitivity is heavily influenced by our genes and not something anyone can completely control. There are plenty of benefits to being sensitive as well. Sensitivity has long been linked to greater creativity and understanding of others. 

The full study can be found here, published in Molecular Psychiatry.