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Pop Psychology, Personality Types, And Thick Skin


If people love anything, they love pop psychology, especially if they get to take a little test that tells them what kind of person they are. Of course many of those tests have about as much scientific basis as astrology, and are written in a similar way so that they’ll sound applicable to just about anyone! Science! Bonus points if you get to read about how intuitive you are!

But there are a few personality typing systems that are gaining more traction through research. These include the Big Five personality traits, introversion/extroversion, and perhaps most interestingly, level of sensitivity. There’s been a great deal of research into what’s termed “Highly Sensitive People,” with findings that show some people are, in fact, naturally more sensitive. What does that mean? Physiologically, some people react more strongly to stimulus. Their eyes dilate faster and more, they sweat, their heart rate goes up, and if you stick them in an MRI machine, their brains get more active more quickly. This isn’t referring to the behaviors that they take after something happens to them, but rather to how their minds and bodies react.

So while pulling out your INTJ typing might not mean much, personality typing and the psychology behind it could be incredibly important to understanding why another person might be hurt by something you say. This is particularly important given the current climate of internet dialogue that seems to revolve around the following sentence:

You’re just too sensitive.

Excuse me while I pull out the naturalistic fallacy for a moment, but how can one be “too” something if it’s just their natural biological makeup? “I’m sorry my fine fellow, but you’re simply too red-headed. I’m going to need you to tone it down a bit.”

Sure there might be times where our innate characteristics are a pain in the ass (when you’re tall enough that you whack your head on every doorframe) and that we try to use technology or procedures to adjust our natural abilities (see: glasses), but in general it doesn’t make much sense to blame someone for the way their body and brain are born, and it especially doesn’t make sense to tell them that they should just change the natural responses of their bodies. And based on the current research, we don’t have the equivalent of sensitivity glasses that would allow someone to tone down their innate temperament if they find it makes life harder for other people.

Not only is “you’re too sensitive” an unhelpful response without this research, with the research on varying temperaments, it makes even less sense to try to gauge what kind of reaction is appropriate to a given stimulus if you have no idea what another person’s temperament is.

Of course there are some people on the internet pushing buttons and being nasty who don’t actually care too much about whether or not they’re being appropriate since they find it fun to be jerks (see: trolls), but from my vantage point, I also see many bystanders who don’t necessarily agree with the trolls but who do think that “kids these days” are just overcoddled and need to stop being so sensitive. If everyone could just grow a thicker skin, there wouldn’t be problems on the internet anymore, dontchaknow.

But it turns out that a good portion of the population (estimates put highly sensitive people at about 20% of people) just can’t. They’re wired to feel things more strongly than other people. So when we talk about trolls and harassment and making internet culture a place for free speech, we have to recognize that demanding a certain toughness of skin is going to exclude some people based on characteristics about themselves that they can’t change and shouldn’t need to change. There’s actually some great benefits to being highly sensitive.

Skepchick has made it clear that we’re not a fan of personal attacks or out and out cruelty, and the research supports the idea that if we want to hear more perspectives, we have to be willing to accept sensitivity.

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  1. Great post! When I was a kid, I was the school whipping girl. I was highly sensitive and cried every time someone said something cruel to me, which was often. I was sent to the school counsellor, since the problem was obviously me, not the kids or the teachers who allowed it. One teacher actually–right in front of the class!–started to pick at me like I was a cherry tree when I complained that the kids were picking on me. I cried piteously. These were the Dark Ages, before bullying became something to be stopped in school. She probably would’ve been fired today, though this was in the South…. I eventually decided to try to ignore the cruel comments. Instead, the abuse became more physical. I’m extremely tiny. Have you ever noticed that bullies never pick on someone bigger than they are?

    At any rate, I’m a lot stronger now. Life has forced that one me. But I’m still fairly sensitive inside. If you pick on me, do I not cry inside?

  2. Here it comes. That urge that I’m supposed to suppress. The urge to disagree vehemently in the comments thread.

    While biology(and other personally uncontrollable factors, such as environment) play heavily into scientifically measurable personally characteristics, the science also says that personally traits, at least big five, can partially be retrained willfully even well into adulthood.

    If your personality is sufficiently problematic to others, calling it your nature is an excuse. I point to, for example, to the dark tetrad traits that are (apparently) characteristic of internet trolls(and murderers).

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