The displacement of the gentle: consequences for sustainability?

By Joern Fischer

Today, I’ll try to make a connection between psychological research (not really my expertise!) and the state of the world, academia, and sustainability. In well over 100 species, some individuals are highly responsive to environmental stimuli, while others are not. Among humans, the highly responsive individuals have been termed “highly sensitive”.

Such responsiveness to stimuli, or sensitivity, has consequences for how these individuals act, but also for how they are being perceived by the rest of society (and how well they “fit in”). Not just among humans, but also in other species, such highly responsive individuals make up something like 20% of the population. According to Elaine Aron – who wrote a lot on this topic – the inherent trait of high responsiveness to environmental stimuli (or high sensitivity) tends to result in individuals deeply processing information, getting easily over-stimulated, being relatively more empathetic, and reacting to subtleties in their environment.

If you think about it, this set of traits could be quite relevant for sustainability – it would seem, in fact, that highly sensitive people should make good sustainability scientists. Deeply processing information should be useful in any academic endeavor. Being empathetic is useful in most social situations, and should be useful when dealing with situations where collaboration with other disciplines, or with stakeholders from outside research, is needed. Reacting to subtleties suggests potential ability to detect patterns early, and perhaps acting according to the precautionary principle. Being easily over-stimulated … well, that sounds like a downside with no obvious benefit.

What strikes me as interesting, however, is that most of the work by people interested in this phenomenon is not about how this trait could be useful for the world – but rather, it focuses on why people with this trait often do not cope very well in today’s world. (The movie trailer here illustrates this quite clearly!) If I think about it, indeed, among the senior sustainability scientists I know, the percentage of people I’d estimate to be “highly sensitive” appears very low; certainly lower than 20%.

I have thought about this for some time, and I’m pretty sure the reason is not that any of the analysis above (mine, or that by people who have seriously researched this issue) is wrong. Rather, I think the academic environment increasingly selects against people who have the above mix of traits. Deep processing and empathy are not exactly what modern academia is looking for. As Lawrence put it: “Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them.”

What’s troubling for sustainability, to my mind, is that this pattern is not just true in academia. Gentle people, in general terms, are appreciated as primary school teachers, nurses, and artists. While they are over-represented in areas such as these, they are under-represented in leadership positions. Yet, it’s in leadership positions that the world could currently do with more empathy (e.g. for the Global South) and with a bit more responsiveness to subtleties (like, our world is falling apart, have you noticed?).

I would argue that humanity needs people with a wide range of skills – but currently, some of the skills (or even traits) that are most needed to fix the problems we have created for ourselves, are under-appreciated, systematically, in Western culture.

I’ll be curious to see if readers of this blog think this makes sense or not. You could ask yourself if any of the people in your immediate environment are “highly sensitive” – if so, are they in leadership positions or what are their roles? (There’s a self-test here, if you like such things…)

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10 thoughts on “The displacement of the gentle: consequences for sustainability?

  1. Interesting post.

    The lack of tack, diplomacy and sensitivity to other people’s opinions clearly displayed in my posts on this blog I think pretty clearly suggest I am not highly sensitive, but my academic persona is only one facet of my personality. In a sense I don’t like the dichotomous classification suggested here. Rather, I think personas are highly mutable and change, both over time and as a response to their environments. For example, if I am sitting in a wild flower meadow, I become highly sensitive and highly sensitised, in a way that I am way that I am not in academic workshop or a pub.

    So rather than classifying people as “highly sensitive” or not (with all the normative baggage and ‘othering’ that involves) and trying to remedy the marginalization of the “highly sensitive” in academia, I think it might be more useful to try and create academic environments where everyone is able to be more sensitive. This differentiation might seem pedantic, but to me it matters. Squashing people into boxes is, I think, potentially counter-productive and there is a danger that people begin to conform to the label placed on them.

    I guess one of the questions is to what extent high sensitivity is a learnt behaviour rather than some fixed aspect of an individual’s personality? Or to put it another way to what extent is “low sensitivity” an environmental response rather than a default setting for 80% of the population?

    • Hi Dave. I think you make a very good point — where the “emergent behaviour” of being “gentle” comes from is quite irrelevant. I.e. whether it’s partly an unalterable trait, or a learned behaviour, is not important to the outcome — a world that does not value this set of behaviours. I very much agree with you that people can change, a lot, through their lives; and certain practices can definitely increase people’s ability to notice subtleties and so on. Whether or not the “bimodal” pattern is real is something I can’t say anything about, that should be up to the psychological researchers (the paper I linked to seems to suggest it is real, for evolutionary reasons)! My reading is that the claim is indeed that there is a bimodal distribution in responsiveness to stimuli. Yet, even if this is true, one might argue — like you did — that this is not a helpful difference to focus on.

    • While I love Dave Abson’s writing style, and notwithstanding the fact that “Sustainability Science is Puzzling” is one of my favorite blogs in this site (which I read not just once, not just twice, and shared with my colleagues), I will have to disagree with him here. I don’t think that classifying people as “highly sensitive” should be equated to squashing people into boxes, and onwards to the slippery slope of people conforming into the label placed on them. Avoiding the “classification” that some people are highly sensitive brings one back to the problem that Joern was talking about, which is that they are under-appreciated, leading to academia’s (if not the world’s) inability to tap the rich resource of the mix of attributes in these individuals. But in fact, the blog is not trying to classify people. I think it is merely trying to facilitate a recognition of differences. And recognizing differences is first step to appreciation.

      To appreciate highly sensitive people and the unique contribution that they can make to areas such as sustainability science, requires a recognition that differences between people exists and that there truly are highly sensitive individuals, and that it is not purely a matter of environmental stimulation but something that runs more deeply. Sure, some environments can make one more sensitive and some environments less so. But that is an entirely different matter as being highly sensitive because it is one’s chief characteristic of being, or state of being, independent of the situation one is in. But just as normally less sensitive individuals can heighten their sensitivity by being in a conducive environment, so can highly sensitive individuals find ways to thrive in an environment that does not necessarily suit it. So, yes, people are mutable and they change. But the degree to which they change depend on more factors than just creating the right environment. There are default modes, conditions where people find themselves within their element. That is something internal. And if that is recognized, and valued, academia might be able to retain some of these highly sensitive people — more importantly, to retain them without making them feel like they are shortchanging themselves by putting up with a system that does not enable them to tap into and live out their full potentials.

      That said, I also think that the questions you posted in the last paragraph of your comment is very useful. Joern’s thought about recognizing the value of highly sensitive people is not necessarily mutually exclusive with your thought about sensitivity as a learned behavior because there is a spectrum of complex human personalities and behaviors that necessitate a range of approaches which one can use to tap into the resources of this spectrum more effectively.

      This is an entirely different topic but the post reminds me of the under-representation of political and social scientists in such large organizations as the World Bank and IMF where there are more economists. And we do know how a lack of understanding of social, political and cultural contexts in much of the global south has led to ineffectiveness of many systems, policies and projects (not to mention money wasted, time lost, efforts achieving nothing, and the frustration of many development workers and deaths that who knows, could have been prevented had the approach and the understanding of local contexts been better) at least in the area of international aid.

      I know a few highly sensitive people. Many are not at the top leadership positions. The fewer I know who are in leadership positions have had to build an armor and be resilient. But by experience, I see that these are people who understand the people they lead quite well. And because they understand, they’re able to help people perform better.

  2. Thanks Joern, very nice post and the comments too. It is likely a ‘multi petal’ situation, so the ‘sensitive to what’ question may be relevant. I know few very sensitive persons being leaders. If not formal leaders, then informal ones. All the wise people I know are sensitive, while many brilliant people I know are not sensitive ‘sensu Joern’ but are smart, well skilled, competitive (‘selfish and arrogant’ too, to quote somebody). We need to teach to sensitive people how to manage their sensitivity in a way to be beneficial for them in our speeding society. The very first step in this would be to discover it and to perceive its many positives. Most of such sensitive people think that this is a weakness. Many sensitive people can fool themselves when they are forced to express themselves in a very speedy/competitive environment. They look incoherent etc. This is because these people (the sensitive ones) cannot maniphest in the ways how the ‘insensitive ones’ do. I feel the highly sensitive persons have extraordinary possibility to be truly visionary leaders. They may not be the best managers, but they can manage well conflicts for example. It is all about these people to realize who they are, and reflect on their huge asset of being sensitive. If they dont do this, they will fuel in their circles and in themselves some ‘energies’ which may not be good.

  3. very interesting, Joern. I think there is a lot of truth in this. I would go one step further and say that the kind of people we really need in leadership positions are those who have many of the ‘highly sensitive’ traits, but have trained themselves – through mindfulness practices or otherwise – to be able to hold their centres in chaotic situations, rather than being overwhelmed by them

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  5. Dear Joern, nice post. I believe empathy is a key trait for effective and successful leadership. Empathy leads to the emergence of trust, which is a distinctive human feeling involving sharing values, beliefs, and objectives. And leadership, in my view, has mostly to do with such aspects. Do “highly sensitive” people occupy leadership positions? I fear the answer may be a not-so-flattering one…

    • Thanks Ago — I agree with your assessment. I guess the one thing to be careful about is to recognise that the not-so-sensitive also can make very good leaders. I think what may be particularly effective is leadership teams — the elbows and determination of the not-so-sensitive, coupled with the empathy and intuition of the highly sensitive. I think we need both — but I agree with your assessment that more often than not, especially in the “modern” world, the highly sensitive are being displaced from leadership positions. And I agree this is something to be concerned about. Cheers, J.

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