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A personality test isn't usually part of a regular physical. Along with being asked to turn your head and cough, though, questions about how risk-averse you are might become a regular part of doctor's visits, if a new study is anything to go by.
The study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology — which like you, I read regularly — was conducted by a team led by Dr Kavita Vedhara. Dr Vedhara and her co-authors asked 121 people questions about their personalities, and tested their blood for the expression of genes related to inflammation.
The personality trait labelled "extroversion" was associated with increased inflammatory response, meaning that people who scored higher for openness and being a "people person", and who said they enjoyed activities in groups, were more likely to show inflammatory gene expression.
By contrast, people who scored highly for conscientiousness showed less inflammatory gene expression. Conscientious individuals are more likely to identify with statements like: "I am seen as "reflective" or "reserved"; "I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own"; and "I prefer to know just a few people well", and are less likely to take risks.
What the study doesn't show is why that could be the case.
The authors suggest that the personality could be the result of the genes — that people with weak immune systems become introverted in order to avoid exposure to pathogens which they're less well-equipped to flight off than their extroverted opposite numbers. The same increased subjective risk could cause them to become more conscientious.
It's equally possible the personality affects gene expression: people who live more gregarious,extroverted lives might encounter more pathogens,strengthening their immune systems and triggering the expression of genes for inflammatory responses.
The study's authors caution against introducing personality tests as a blanket roll-out to every standard doctor's visit. But Dr Vedhara does think that treatment plans that include looking at a patient's psychological profile as well as their physical symptoms could hold out hope for a more effective, more individualized medicine.
In particular, she observes that "if you're confronted by a chronic condition", like diabetes or heart disease, "you may have underlying beliefs about your condition which might influence your underlying physiology and your ability to recover and manage your disease, [and] you may well have an orientation which makes you more or less likely to exercise" — and an assessment that includes those factors may be more accurate and effective. In particular, doctors might treat chronic conditions better if they have access to accompanying psychological information.
"Most areas of medical intervention work quite well," said Dr Vedhara, "but I think that we’re on the brink of seeing a future where we use psychological interventions and behavioral interventions to maximize their efficacy."