Why are some people more sensitive than others? Genes may tell

  • Some people are more sensitive to their experiences than others
  • A British study set out to determine if this sensitivity is caused by the environment or genes
  • They found that the environment was slightly more influential than genes in causing sensitivity

Very sensitive people may owe about half of their heightened feelings to their genes, a British study of twins suggests.

Researchers looked at pairs of identical and fraternal 17-year-old twins to gauge how much differences in sensitivity owed to genes or the environment.

While identical twins share the same genes, fraternal twins don't, so findings among identical twins are more likely to be genetic than environmental, the researchers explained.

The study found that 47% of the differences in sensitivity were due to genetics and 53% environmental.

Biology and environment

"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," said study leader Michael Pluess, a professor of developmental psychology at Queen Mary University of London.

"Because we now know that this sensitivity is as much due to biology as 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," he said in a university news release.

Pluess said this was the first time researchers have been able to quantify how much of the differences can be explained by genetics.

The study included more than 2 800 twins, 1 000 of whom were identical. Participants answered questions about how sensitive they were.

Shared genetic links

"If a child is more sensitive to negative experiences, it may be that they become more easily stressed and anxious in challenging situations," said co-author Elham Assary, a postdoctoral researcher at Queen Mary.

"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," she said in the release.

The researchers also looked at other personality traits, including openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism. They found shared genetic links between sensitivity, neuroticism and extraversion, but not any other traits.

The findings were recently published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

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