Neuroticism is a personality trait that includes a tendency to avoid acting when confronted with both major and minor stressors, and this inability to move forward inevitably leads to negative consequences. A new study led by a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania found that neurotic people avoid making decisions in part because they simply dislike action more than non-neurotic people. “Anxiety was primarily responsible for emotionally unstable individuals' less positive attitudes toward action,” wrote the authors in their study, which appears online in the Journal of Personality.

What exactly is neuroticism?

People who are neurotic tend to be more frequently depressed, while also suffering from anxiety. In an essay on the issue, Dr. Gregg Henriques, a professor of psychology at James Madison University, described a neurotic as “someone who is a worrier, easily upset, often down or irritable, and demonstrates high emotional reactivity to stress,” yet he also noted, “we are all neurotic some of the time, even if we might be low on trait Neuroticism.” In many respects, he sees neurotic tendencies as “maladaptive coping strategies driven by fear or anxiety (which can be conscious or subconscious) elicited by a certain kind of situation.” Unfortunately, these neurotic and maladaptive responses move us away from our long-term goals and needs rather than helping us attain what we say we want.

To better understand neuroticism, a team of researchers led by Dr. Dolores Albarracín of the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, conducted a study that included nearly 4,000 college students in 19 countries (69 percent female). The researchers began by testing how individuals who rated themselves as higher in neuroticism evaluated action and inaction. Then, the researchers investigated anxiety, depression, and individualism-collectivism to understand the relationship of these traits with neuroticism. In particular, they tried to decide whether collectivistic tendencies — the inclination to consider the social consequences of your behavior before acting — would moderate the negative associations between neuroticism and action/inaction.

The first thing the researchers discovered was that neurotics looked at action less favorably than emotionally stable people do, while seeing inaction more favorably. Next, they found that the link between neuroticism and a less positive attitude toward action “was strongest among individuals who endorsed more collectivistic than individualistic beliefs."

A neurotic person, then, tends to favor social harmony, family, and friends.

"By learning to value action, [neurotic people] may be able to change many of the negative behaviors associated with neuroticism and anxiety — such as freezing when they should act, or withdrawing from stress instead of dealing proactively with it," the authors wrote, suggesting that attitudes about action and inaction goals have broad consequences for behavior across diverse contexts and cultures.

Left-Handed Neurotics

An entirely different study of neuroticism conducted by researchers at the University of Belgrade explored the link between left-handedness and neurotic tendencies. Oddly, past studies have found that left-handed people have a greater likelihood of exhibiting neurotic personality traits. To understand this possible relationship, the researchers enlisted the help of 1,202 adult residents in Belgrade: 401 male (about 33 percent) and 801 female (about 67 percent). Filling out a questionnaire, the participants reported their age, writing hand, and also any neurotic disturbances, including tension, aggressiveness, anger, nervousness, weepiness, and seclusion.

The researchers discovered that 60 subjects (five percent) were left-handed, with greater frequency in men (7.7 percent) compared to women (3.6 percent). Unusually, a decreasing trend of the proportion of left-handed men was found in relation to aging. Among those between the ages of 18 and 39, aggressiveness was significantly more frequent in left-handed men when compared to right-handers. For those between 40 and 59, neurotic disturbances were more common among left-handed men compared to right-handers. Yet, no significant differences existed in the proportion of neurotic disturbances between left-handed and right-handed women.

From a public health point of view, left-handed men may be regarded as a relatively vulnerable population category concerning mental health,” concluded the authors in their study.


Ireland ME, Hepler J, Li H, Albarracin D. Neuroticism and Attitudes Toward Action in 19 Countries. Journal of Personality. 2014.

Milenkovic S, Brkic M, Belojevic G. Left-handedness and neurotic disturbances in adult urban population. Srp Arh Celok Lek. 2013.