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Turns out there’s a link between extroversion and tendency to inflammation on the one hand, and planning and tendency to avoid it on the other. But what do the facts really mean and how long will it be before your doctor wants a personality test?

As well as gauging the effectiveness of your immune system, your personality might also hold the key to knowing how long you're likely to live.

That's the position put forward by Joshua Jackson, a psychology professor at Washington University. Professor Jackson sees understanding personality as an important way to improve physical health. 

In a recent study, led by Professor Jackson, the team examined how your friends' assessment of your personality might affect how long you were likely to live.

The two traits most associated with long life in men were conscientiousness and openness, while for women, you ideally want your friends to regard you as agreeable and emotionally stable.

Professor Jackson suggested that the results could be caused by behaviours associated with those character traits. For example, "conscientious people tend to eat their vegetables and exercise", and would also typically avoid unnecessarily risky behaviours like driving without a seatbelt. He summarized: "They just seem to live a nice, tidy, buttoned-up life, which helps them live longer."

Open individuals, meanwhile, "are not necessarily set in their ways, they’re able to change, they’re open to new experiences". That could mean being more willing to change their minds about how to live, in line with new discoveries or the advice of health professionals. However, openness may also be associated with the propensity to seek out mentally challenging activities, such as crossword puzzles or challenging games like chess, and this type of activity is associated with greater mental agility and reduced cognitive decline in old age. 

What about the gender differences? It seems a little unfair that being an agreeable man, or a conscientious woman, doesn't win you any additional years of life.

Well, some of that may have to do with the fact that Dr Jackson's team was using data from the 1930s, in order to have a population that could be tracked for natural mortality over a range of different times. As a result, the descriptions need to be interpreted in the light of the basically sexist social mores of the 1930s. In particular, the descriptors of women might be skewed by the fact that "high levels of peer-rated emotional stability and agreeableness predict mortality because they largely assess positive characteristics indicative of a supportive and easy-going wife, such as that described in the social theory of the time." In both men and women, it may be that simply being considered likeable is conducive to longevity, and the two different, gendered descriptions are simply ways of saying "good person" in a sexist society.

More worryingly, and less fairly, it's also possible that reality itself might be sexist and "that personality within women has a less robust relationship with health and longevity", in the words of Dr Jackson.

While it's unlikely that personality tests and Rorschach blots are going to find their way into every doctor's waiting room, it's great to see the beginnings of a truly person-centered, holistic approach to medicine that's also solidly based in science.

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