Research published in Psychological Reports suggests that labeling oneself as a “highly sensitive person” can sometimes be a manipulative tactic used by individuals with dark personality traits, particularly narcissism and psychopathy, to sway others’ behavior and gain advantages.
The researchers conducted this study to better understand the construct known as sensory processing sensitivity, which refers to individual differences in sensitivity to internal and external stimuli. This trait is popularly known as being a “highly sensitive person” in public discourse, and some individuals identify as such on online forums, expressing a need for special care and understanding.
The study aimed to investigate the associations between sensitivity to external stimuli and the tendency to signal high sensitivity to others, while also considering the role of dark personality traits (the Dark Triad). The researchers hypothesized two possibilities: “assertive signaling of specific needs,” where individuals genuinely express their sensitivity to alert others to their unique stimulation needs, and “deceptive signaling,” where the expression of high sensitivity is used as a manipulative strategy.
“Due to the advantages that could be achieved as a result of signaling victimhood, the public displays of one’s weakness and oppression by personal limitations might be considered as a two-sided social strategy. On the one hand, it could help individuals with particular sensitivities (e.g., neuroticism) to better satisfy their needs in everyday social interactions. On the other hand, a number of studies showed that victimhood signaling was also used as a deception strategy by individuals high in the Dark Triad, namely narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy,” the researchers wrote.
To conduct the study, the researchers recruited 201 individuals through online surveys using the snowball sampling method. The participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 67, and the majority were women. The participants completed various questionnaires, including measures of sensitivity to reward and punishment, sensory processing sensitivity, and the Dark Triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy).
The participants also completed a newly developed scale to assess signaling high sensitivity to influence others, which included items such as “It is easier for me to persuade someone to support me if I admit that I am a highly sensitive person.”
The researchers found a weak association between sensory processing sensitivity and signaling high sensitivity to influence others. This means that individuals who score high on sensory processing sensitivity, which reflects their heightened depth of stimulus processing and awareness of subtleties in the environment, do not necessarily signal their sensitivity to others more frequently.
There was a statistically significant but relatively weak association between signaling high sensitivity to influence others and behavioral inhibition system (BIS) sensitivity, which is related to the tendency to respond to aversive or threatening stimuli with caution and inhibition. This finding aligns with the “assertive signaling of specific needs” hypothesis proposed by the researchers.
But there was also a positive association between signaling high sensitivity to influence others and the behavioral approach system (BAS). The BAS is mainly related to reward responsiveness and reflects an individual’s motivation to seek positive outcomes. This finding suggest that individuals with high reward responsiveness are more likely to engage in assertive self-presentational strategies, such as signaling high sensitivity, to gain positive reactions from others.
Additionally, individuals with higher scores on dark personality traits, specifically narcissism and psychopathy, were more likely to engage in signaling high sensitivity to influence others. This finding supports the “deceptive signaling” hypothesis, indicating that the expression of high sensitivity can be a manipulative interpersonal strategy employed by grandiose and callous individuals to gain advantage in social interactions.
It suggests that individuals with dark personality traits may use the perception of high sensitivity as a means of garnering sympathy or obtaining special treatment from others. “This result showed that signaling high sensitivity is also a deceptive interpersonal strategy used by grandiose and callous manipulators,” the researchers wrote.
Overall, the study suggests that signaling high sensitivity to influence others is a complex phenomenon involving both sincere expressions of sensitivity and manipulative strategies. While some highly sensitive individuals may genuinely use this strategy to adapt their social interactions to their unique needs, others, particularly those with high reward responsiveness and dark personality traits, may use it as a calculated tactic to elicit specific responses from others.
The study, “Signaling High Sensitivity to Influence Others: Initial Evidence for the Roles of Reinforcement Sensitivity, Sensory Processing Sensitivity, and the Dark Triad“, was authored by Martyna Kajdzik and Marcin Moroń.