Dandelions, Tulips, and Orchids: A Flower Metaphor for Human Sensitivity

By Maryna Mullerman ‘20

Figure 1. The category of medium-sensitive individuals was associated with tulips, flowers more sensitive than dandelions but less fragile than orchids.

In humans, various responsiveness to external stimuli has been attributed to individual differences. Leading human environmental sensitivity theories suggest that heightened sensitivity to negative environmental influences correlates with elevated tendency to benefit from positive environmental influences. The novel orchid-dandelion metaphor describes more sensitive individuals as orchids and less sensitive individuals as dandelions. Francesca Lionetti and researchers from the Queen Mary University of London and Stony Brook University aimed to analyze the existence of such discrete sensitivity groups, develop cut-off scores for group identification, and identity differences in emotional reactivity.

The study used one sample of 906 psychology undergraduates at Stony Brook University to identify sensitivity groups and a second sample of 230 psychology undergraduates at Queen Mary University of London to characterize them. The researchers utilized a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) self-report measure consisting of a general construct and three individual subcategories: low sensory threshold (LST), ease of excitation (EOE), and aesthetic sensitivity (AES). High HSP scores would indicate high sensitivity towards environmental stimuli. To characterize identified sensitivity group profiles, participants in the second sample also completed Big Five personality traits reports and mood induction tasks.

The results suggested that there were three sensitivity categories. The new category of medium-sensitive individuals was associated with tulips, flowers more sensitive than dandelions but less fragile than orchids. The three groups – orchids, tulips, and dandelions –  differed in extraversion and neuroticism. Extraversion was more prevalent in the high-sensitivity group than in the low-sensitivity group. However, the HSP scores and the EOE subscale had positive associations with positive emotional reactivity, indicating that higher sensitivity was associated with vulnerability and better responses to positive environmental stimuli.

According to the study and associated empirical research, the general population included 31% high-sensitive individuals, 40% medium-sensitive individuals, and 29% low-sensitive individuals. The study provided substantial evidence for the support of HSP scale, identified three sensitivity groups, and described links between sensitivity, personality, and emotional reactivity. Limitations of the study included a self-reported psychological indicator of environmental sensitivity (HSP) that could have produced unreliable data. An understanding of the general sensitivity continuum could help establish more personal anti-bullying intervention programs in schools.



  1. F. Lionetti, et al., Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals. Translational Psychiatry 8, (2018). doi: 10.1038/s41398-017-0090-6.
  2. Image retrieved from: https://unsplash.com/photos/JemKKIu-bQA



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