by Emily Birnbaum, Kenyon ’18
The recent reform and universalization of the US health care system has allowed millions of Americans access to health insurance. More specifically, the percentage of uninsured young adults ages 18 to 34 has decreased from 21.6% to 14.2%, according to recent Gallup polling. Because of this, doctors are treating young adults with increasing frequency, necessitating “prevention-oriented” care. In other words, they are expected to help young adults actively take measures that will keep them healthy as they age.
But how can they predict what kind of professional advice and care young adults will need? Because we now understand that there are many personal factors that predict one’s health, it is important for doctors to personalize their advice according to what each patient specifically needs to do and prevent. But how can doctors treat each of their patients in extremely personal ways when they have so many patients and so little time? Psychologists Salomen Israel, Terrie E. Moffitt, Daniel W. Belsky, Robert J. Hancox, Richie Poulton, Brent Roberts, W. Murray Thomson and Avshalom Caspi have offered their own comprehensive answer to this question: assess each patients’ personality traits.
According to their 2014 study, participants’ levels of Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience at age 26 tended to predict how poor or good their physical health was by age 38.
The data on which this study is based comes from Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (Moffitt et al., 2001), which was a longitudinal investigation of 1,037 individuals, 52% male, born in Dunedin, New Zealand. When each study member turned 26, their family members or friends (called “informants”) completed personality surveys that assessed the participant’s personality traits. Then, at age 32, Dunedin study staff completed personality assessments about the same study members after brief encounters with them.
When the results of these objective personality assessments were compared with the participant members’ physical health at age 38, the researchers found many interesting correlations. Even after controlling for many of the other risk factors that contribute to health disparities, such as socioeconomic status, medical conditions, smoking addictions, and so on, those who were reported to be low in Conscientiousness and low in Openness to Experience by informants and study staff alike were consistently less healthy while those high in these traits were more healthy. The authors of this study have many reasons why this relationship could be.
Because high Openness to Experience is often closely associated with having a high IQ, the researchers hypothesized that it was possible that Openness is an important predictor of health because intelligence is an important predictor of health. This proved to be true: when the researchers observed the correlation between Openness and IQ, they found that high Openness and high IQ were inextricably connected. Those with high Openness (and therefore high IQs) therefore had better physical health by 38. This may be because people higher in intelligence are more likely to seek medical attention once symptoms present and manage health problems effectively (Batty & Deary, 2004; Beier & Ackerman, 2003; Gottfredson & Deary, 2004).
Conscientiousness is another story. It has previously been found that individuals high in Conscientiousness are more likely to engage in active lifestyles and maintain healthy diets, as well as being less likely to smoke, abuse drugs, or abuse alcohol (Bogg & Roberts, 2004). Those who are Conscientious typically plan ahead and vigilantly avoid health risks.
It would seem commonsensical to assume that Neuroticism plays a role in one’s health. Because those who are Neurotic tend to have higher levels of anxiety, one would think their health would be precarious. The researchers of this study predicted that Neuroticism did not play a role in future health predictions because it is a trait that is much more accurately assessed subjectively. This means that, if they had possibly used study members’ self-reported personality assessments, it is likely they would have found a greater correlation between high Neuroticism and poor health. The researchers state in the study, “Although we demonstrate that observer ratings of personality predict future health, we do not rule out the potential of self-report measures to provide equally valuable inferences.”
What could these discoveries mean in the future? It is significant that, even after brief encounters, staff members were able to accurately assess study members’ personality traits, which then accurately predicted future health outcomes. If doctors incorporated personality assessment, even based on brief encounters, into their health-promotion interventions, they could get through to patients even more effectively. For example, if a doctor takes note of a person’s low Conscientiousness, he or she could encourage the patient to avoid mistakes typically made by lowly Conscientious people, such as ignoring symptoms or not knowing how to treat oneself effectively.
It is important to note that this data needs to be replicated. Going forward, researchers have to find the predictive validity of Big Five traits across situations and cross-culturally. The current study member pool is limited.
Imagine if it were possible for your doctor to tailor your medical experience to your personality despite their inability to form a close relationship with you. This could be a very effective way for doctors to avoid the mistake of depersonalizing medical care.
Batty, G. D., & Deary, I. J. (2004). Early life intelligence and adult health. British Medical Journal, 329, 585–586. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7466.585
Beier, M. E., & Ackerman, P. L. (2003). Determinants of health knowledge: An investigation of age, gender, abilities, personality, and interests. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 439 – 448. doi: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1689
Bogg, T., & Roberts, B. W. (2013). The case for conscientiousness: Evidence and implications for a personality trait marker of health and longevity. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 45, 278 –288. doi:10.1007/ s12160-012-9454-6
Gottfredson, L. S., & Deary, I. J. (2004). Intelligence predicts health and longevity, but why? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 1– 4. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.01301001.x
Israel, S., Moffitt, T.E., Belsky, D.W., Hancox, R.J., Poulton, R., Roberts, B., Thomson, W.M., & Caspi, A. (2014). Translating personality psychology to help personalize preventive medicine for young adult patients. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 484-498.
Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Rutter, M., & Silva, P. A. (2001). Sex differences in antisocial behaviour: Conduct disorder, delinquency, and violence in the Dunedin Longitudinal Study. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511490057