Psychology Personality and Health
by
Dietlinde Heilmayr
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0217

Introduction

Why do some people seem to contract the flu annually, suffer from chronic aches and pains, or die prematurely, while others stay healthy throughout their lives and into old age? People commonly notice variation across individuals’ susceptibility to illness. The scientific study of individual differences in personality helps to explain some of this variation. Through its influence on thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and environments, personality is one of the best psychological predictors of physical health. Personality is most commonly measured using the Big Five framework—made up of extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism, and agreeableness. These personality traits relate to health behaviors, stress reactivity, coping strategies, situation selection, and more. Though a comprehensive causal model of personality–health relationship across the lifespan has yet to be developed, the intersection of personality and health helps to inform methods of health promotion and disease prevention. The notion that individual differences relate to physical health dates back to the ancient Greeks, but the scientific study of this relationship is relatively recent. This article begins with an overview of the historical roots of the scientific study of personality and health—a section that includes both pioneering articles of the field and also more recent articles that provide reflection on the historical context. The second section provides an overview of the field and its major contributions; that is, how can we conceptualize and rigorously study the relations between personality and physical health, what are the seminal findings, and what is left to be discovered? The third section provides insight into how personality and health are related. Though the field is flooded with studies of associations between personality traits and physical health indicators and outcomes, the full causal mechanisms are still unclear; thus, this is one of the most important areas of research in the field. This section includes subsections on some of the most discussed mechanisms in the relationship between personality and health: behavior and stress and coping. Next comes a discussion of the relationships that have emerged between specific traits and health. Overviews of these findings can be found in the main section, with more narrowly focused studies and reviews in the subsections on conscientiousness, subjective well-being, hostility, and neuroticism. The subsections discuss the specific trait–health relationships, as well as the complexities that arise in the context of said relationships. The next section provides an overview of a relatively recent development in the field—personality change and health. Though personality is relatively stable, there is evidence for rank- and mean-level changes across the lifespan. How these changes relate to meaningful outcomes, including physical health, is a question that has come to the forefront of the field. Finally, the article closes with a discussion of personality-informed health interventions. Though interventions—especially those that target changing personality—are premature due to an incomplete understanding of the causal mechanisms at play, the study and consideration of such interventions are important to strengthen theory in the field, for conceptualization of future research, and ultimately, for real-world application.

Historical Roots

Knowledge of how the study of personality and health has developed over time provides a necessary framework for understanding contemporary research on personality and health. Theories and conceptualizations have changed quite a bit over the years—especially since the earliest conceptualizations of Hippocrates and Galen—with each shift informing subsequent research. Cannon 1932 scientifically documents the effects of stress on physiological responses and thus establishes important conceptual roots (e.g., homeostasis and the “fight or flight” response) for future research into personality and health. Menninger and Menninger 1936, which notes that aggression and ambition may be linked with heart disease in men, is one of the first scientific forays into the study of personality and health. This scientific study of personality and health was popularized in part by Alexander 1950, which claims that specific diseases were caused by specific emotional conflicts. Relatedly, Dunbar 1943 and Freud 1955 also paved the way for future research, the former by presenting the idea of diseases having specific personality profiles and the latter by popularizing many of the ideas relating to mind–body connections. Moving into the 1970s, readers can learn many lessons from the shortcomings in research on Type A behavioral patterns; an overview of the original work can be found in Friedman and Rosenman 1974. Finally, Suls and Rittenhouse 1987 and Kobasa 1990 both provide excellent insight into the historical roots of personality and health research, tracing its evolution from ancient Greece to the late 20th century.

  • Alexander, F. 1950. Psychosomatic medicine: Its principles and applications. New York: Norton.

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    With this book, Alexander made the argument for the importance of studying psychological processes for physical health. In it, the influential psychoanalyst describes the effects of unconscious conflicts on bodily processes and physical health.

  • Cannon, W. B. 1932. The wisdom of the body. New York: Norton.

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    In this book, Cannon develops the concept of homeostasis, which is built from Claude Bernard’s idea of milieu interieur. The concept of homeostasis maintains that the body has mechanisms to support stability and plays an important role in future developments in understanding personality and health.

  • Dunbar, F. 1943. Psychosomatic diagnosis. New York: Hoeber.

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    This book is the primary write-up of a study on emotions and physical changes. Overall, Dunbar’s work developed the basic tenants of psychosomatic medicine and argued that personality profiles exist for specific diseases. Though this work has fallen out of favor, Dunbar’s contributions helped to organize and provide direction to the research efforts in psychosomatic medicine.

  • Freud, S. 1955. Collected works. Vol. 2, Studies of hysteria. London: Hogarth Press & Institute of Psychoanalysis.

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    Much of modern psychology can be traced back to Freud; personality and health is no different. Originally published 1893–1895, this book presents case studies of hysteric individuals, tying the hysteria to past experiences, and provides some discussion of curing physical ailments with psychodynamic treatments.

  • Friedman, M., and F. H. Rosenman. 1974. Type A behavior and your heart. New York: Knopf.

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    Although the classification of Type A and Type B behavioral patterns has fallen out of favor, and many of the previously believed associations between Type A personality and heart disease have been deemed unreliable, research on the topic paved the way for modern research on personality and health. In this book, Friedman and Rosenman describe the Type A behavioral pattern and how this disposition is related to heart disease.

  • Kobasa, S. C. O. 1990. Lessons learned from history: How to find the person in health psychology. In Personality and disease. Edited by H. S. Friedman, 14–36. New York: Wiley.

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    This chapter describes the thought process of the author when developing a two-hour lecture on personality and health. The author presents questions that arose while developing the lecture, along with attempts to answer those questions. Overall, Kobasa describes the state of the field in relation to its historical roots, with a particular emphasis on Gordon Allport’s work.

  • Menninger, K. A., and W. C. Menninger. 1936. Psychoanalytic observations in cardiac disorders. American Heart Journal 11:1–21.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0002-8703(36)90371-XE-mail Citation »

    Written by influential psychiatrists, this is one of the first scientific articles to explore the relation of psychology to physical health, specifically heart disease. This article set the tone for the development of the field and provided support for the relevance of psychology in health research.

  • Suls, J., and J. D. Rittenhouse. 1987. Personality and physical health: An introduction. Journal of Personality 55.2: 155–168.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1987.tb00433.xE-mail Citation »

    This article is an introduction to a special issue on personality and health in the Journal of Personality. In light of the goal of providing context for the contents of the special issue, the authors discuss the historical underpinnings of research on personality and health and provide insight on the discussion about whether specific personality trait combinations relate to specific diseases, or whether they increase disease susceptibility more generally.

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