An outgoing, conscientious, organized, and laidback personality not only brings you success in career and romance; those that exhibit these personality traits may also have a competitive edge when it comes to a clean bill of health. According to a recent study published in the journal Psychological and Personality Science, those who are more extroverted, agreeable, conscientious, but not neurotic, are protected against diseases because they are more likely to be healthy and communicate better with their physicians.
“Our research is one of the first studies that has looked at how personality traits are associated with the onset of new diseases over time,” Josh Jackson, study author of Washington University in St. Louis told Yahoo Health. The concept that personality impacts our health is not new. However, there exists a blurred line in distinguishing between personality traits as risk factors, or as byproducts of the disease.
Jackson, Sara Weston, lead author of the study of Washington University, and their colleague Patricia Hill sought to determine whether there is a link between specific personality traits with specific diseases by using data on about 7,000 older Americans with median age 68. This sample size previously participated in the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. In order to rule out people with undiagnosed illnesses, they restricted their sample to people who had visited a doctor or clinic within the previous two years.
The participants were presented with a list of adjectives, from "outgoing” and “friendly” to “sophisticated” and “dominant.” They indicated on a scale of one to four — a lot to not at all — how well each word described them. Then, the researchers gave the participants scores on the “Big Five” personality types: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience, based on their previous answers. The participants were given a list of serious illnesses and asked whether they had been diagnosed by a doctor with one or more of them after being contacted by the researchers four years later.
The findings revealed there is a strong link between personality and the development of diseases. Personality traits did not predict the diagnosis of cancer four years later, but they were linked to the onset of many specific diseases. High levels of extraversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness were all linked to either a lack of disease or better health, with conscientiousness seen as the main protective factor against disease. On the contrary, neuroticism was found to be a risk factor for several diseases.
“Nearly every test of personality differences between individuals with a disease and those without proved statistically significant,” the researchers reported, according to PS Magazine. “Overall, high conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and low neuroticism were associated with better health or absence of disease.”
An increase in conscientiousness decreased the odds of a stroke diagnosis by 37 percent, while an increase in openness decreased the odds of a stroke, heart condition, and high blood pressure diagnosis by 31 percent, 17 percent, and 29 percent, respectively. The researchers found an increase in neuroticism increased the likelihood of being diagnosed with a heart condition by 24 percent, a lung disease diagnosis by 29 percent, high blood pressure by 37 percent, and arthritis by 25 percent.
This study correlates with the findings of a 2013 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, which found those who score highly in conscientiousness tend to do better in physical tests of cardiovascular fitness than those who were more neurotic. Researchers theorized neuroticism most likely leads people to release more of the stress hormone cortisol, which can wreak havoc on the immune system and organs, including the brain. Moreover, people who are highly neurotic are more anxious, worrisome, have mood swings, and are often depressed, which makes them susceptible to illness.
Research has established a link between personality traits and specific diseases, but this doesn’t mean your personality is the cause of the disease. Rather, personality traits can predict health-risk behaviors, which can determine a health diagnosis. Physicians can come up with preventative measures and treatments that appeal to the unique psychological makeup of people based on their personality.
Sources: Hill PL, Jackson JJ, Weston SJ. Personality Traits Predict the Onset of Disease. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2014.
Chan W, Ferrucci L, Schrack JA, Simonsick EM, Sutin AR, Terracciano A. Personality, Metabolic Rate and Aerobic Capacity. PLoS ONE. 2013.