I’m joining the blogwagon. My interests are personality and brain research. I’ll be posting from time to time with some current reactions to recent writings or events, along with some brief essays from my past and current writings. I write from the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies in Charlotte NC USA, and from the perspective of two books I’ve written (The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, 3rd Ed., Bard Press, 2006; The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work, with my wife, Jane Mitchell Howard, Bard Press, 2006) as well as two books that are in process (The Owner’s Manual for Personality from 12 to 22, also with Jane, and The Owner’s Manual for Happiness). I welcome your comments, questions, criticisms, insights, and elaborations.
I’m beginning with a discussion of a much maligned personality trait–Neuroticism, or Need for Stability–in reaction to a recent scholarly article. Find out more about this trait in The Big Five Quickstart.
Thou Shalt Not Scorn Neuroticism
“What, me worry?” Thus, Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot of Mad magazine, stakes himself out as a “low N” on the Big Five taxonomy of personality traits. Without a care in the world, Neuman for years has epitomized the absence of negative emotions. Some say the absence of negative emotions is a good thing, while the presence of negative
emotions (i.e., a “high N”) is a bad thing. That would be the position of Benjamin B. Lahey, Professor of Epidemiology in the University of Chicago’s Department of Health Studies. In the American Psychologist for May/June 2009, Dr. Lahey has penned a piece called “Public Health Significance of Neuroticism.” He argues that high N (high Neuroticism, high Need for Stability, low Emotional Stability) is a public health hazard. He bases his argument on moderate correlations of N scores with everything from smoking and poor health to failed marriages and premature death.
What he fails to do is to mention the other side of the coin: the positive aspects of high N, and the negative aspects of low N. In one brief sentence out of a lengthy article, he allows that “relatively high levels of neuroticism might be adaptive in some cases.” Well, duh! How about Enron? We could have used more folks like Paula Rieker, Enron whistleblower and former managing director of investor relations. I call such high N individuals “the conscience of the organization,” and with good reason. It is as though high Ns were plugged into every socket throughout their environment, such that nothing gets by them. They get angry at injustice, anxious over questionable practices, and bummed out when things go wrong. Those are not maladaptive behaviors. They are healthy.
Professor Lahey’s analysis of the perils of high N, along with the benefits of low N, is sound and thorough. I just wish he had covered the two closely related corollaries: the benefits of high N and the perils of low N. For you see, every trait has its upside and its downside. Without an upside, a trait would not have survived the process of human evolution. High N’s abound in productive roles in today’s society: customer service reps, teaching, nursing, the NBA, the NFL, the WWF, both houses of Congress (debatable?!), the U.S. Marine Corps—in short, wherever people of conscience and action are required, there we will find high N. And the down side of low N—the Alfred E. Neumans of the world? There we find not only airplane pilots (e.g., “Sully” Sullenberger III) and brain surgeons who showcase the benefits of low N—we also find psychopaths who never experience remorse along with partners who never share their feelings.
Professor Lahey, and others who consider the nature of N, should keep four things in mind:
- Every trait has both a positive and a negative aspect. This we have discussed.
- The trait of Neuroticism or Need for Stability has a “set point”—a base level of the autonomic nervous system. This is the point at which one responds to environmental stressors. The higher the set point/score, the less stress it takes to go into the Fight/Flight response. Certain conditions have the temporary effect of elevating the set point to a higher, and temporary, state. Some conditions are shorter (e.g., the first year of college, or a new job), where we see a rise in N for a year or so and then a return to the set point. Other conditions (e.g., poverty, adverse living conditions) elevate N for longer periods. What is interesting about the set point is the lower set points/scores (i.e., low N) is not particularly affected by these stressful conditions, but the higher the N set point, the state of N increases algebraically. So, a moderate N set point would elevate moderately under stressful conditions, while a high N stress point would elevate dramatically.
- The key to mental health is maintaining one’s access to both ends of the trait continua. Gregarious people need to isolate from time to time. Calm people need to show some upset from time to time. Spontaneous people need to follow the plan from time to time. And so forth. It is losing the opposite quality of a trait that is maladaptive, not either extreme in and of itself. Anxiety is good, but not to the exclusion of being at ease. And so forth.
- Finally, traits do not exist in isolation. Neuroticism and its component subtraits are augmented or diminished depending on one’s other trait levels. As Duke University psychiatrist and stress expert Redford Williams has pointed out, “felt” anger (high N) is augmented when accompanied by “expressed anger” (low A). So, when the subtraits of high N2:Anger and low A2:Competitiveness are deviant to the extreme, they influence each other like gasoline added to a fire, with the likely result of what Dr. Williams identifies as Type A personality: unrelenting antagonism, something very hard to live with/around.
With all due respect, Professor Lahey has accurately identified the perils of high N, while omitting the consideration of conditions and contexts that make high N a welcome member of the team. Sort of like warning against the ill effects of overweight without considering the collateral effects of inadequate sleep, a sedentary lifestyle, quality of one’s diet, presence of stressors in one’s life, one’s ability to problem solve, and so forth. The Ten Commandments are a complete package: one should not single out any one commandment for primacy.