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…)