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date: 23 October 2017

Personality and Health

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Please check back later for the full article.

Although the belief that personality is linked to health goes back at least to Greek and Roman times, the scientific study of these links began in earnest only during the last century. The field of psychosomatic medicine, growing out of psychoanalysis, accepted that the body and the mind were closely connected. For a time, the medical world was captivated by the idea that Type A personality was related to cardiovascular disease. However, by the end of the 20th century, the application of modern, scientific conceptions of personality to the understanding of health and health behavior created a thriving field addressing the role personality plays in health and illness. The widespread acceptance of the five-factor model of personality traits, and the reliable and valid measures of personality traits that became available, transformed the study of personality and health. Of the Big Five broad domains of personality (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness), the most dramatic and consistent findings in relation to health have been obtained for conscientiousness (i.e., people who are reliable, restrained, hard-working). Children and adults who are more conscientious have better health and live longer lives than those who are less conscientious. Conscientious individuals engage in more health-enhancing and fewer health-damaging behaviors, which accounts for some, but by no means all, of the association between this trait and better health outcomes including longevity.

Recent developments in the independent fields of personality psychology and health psychology have influenced contemporary approaches to the study of personality and health. Personality traits are no longer viewed as stable across adulthood, but as developing across the entire life span. Researchers are examining the influence of personality change on health. Recognizing the complex, reciprocal influences between personality and health, researchers are also examining how changes in health may lead to changes in personality. A range of health outcomes, wider than ever before, is now available. In addition to disease diagnoses and longevity, there are numerous biomarkers that are risk factors for disease and death that can be studied. Changes on these biomarkers, such as inflammation, cortisol activity, and cellular aging, can be used to chart health in relation to personality traits and to test underlying theoretical models. Recognizing that both personality and health are moving targets necessitates longitudinal studies and a life-span perspective guided by sophisticated models of the relationship between personality and health.