Maybe you know someone prone to worrying, or have noticed your own anxious thoughts creeping in as the Covid pandemic unfurls. Does all that extra thinking make you better off or worse? Let's talk with an expert.
Some of us worry more than others. This varies from person to person, and most of us probably have an idea about where we fall along the spectrum. I can admit (and my family will gladly tell you) I touch down on the high end of this scale. Psychologists call it “neuroticism.”
“People who are high on this trait tend to feel negative emotions, like anxiety or sadness, more frequently and more strongly,” according to Sara Weston, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. “They are also more likely to experience emotional instability, meaning they might jump from one emotion to the next more quickly or more often. Neuroticism's relationship to health can be quite complicated, especially in terms of understanding causality. For example, people who are high in neuroticism are more likely to receive diagnoses of hypertension, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease (Weston, Hill, & Jackson, 2015). But is that because being high in neuroticism makes you less healthy? Or does being in worse health make you anxious or sad?”
“The truth is probably a bit of both,” she says. “For example, we know that people high in neuroticism are more likely to experience stress, which can in turn weaken our cardiovascular (Juster et al., 2015) and immune systems (Gouin, 2010). What's more, these same individuals are more likely to cope with stress with unhealthy habits, like smoking (Hakulinen et al., 2015). On the other hand, neuroticism is also associated with increased vigilance (Weston & Jackson, 2018). What this means is that people high in neuroticism report paying more attention to how their body feels and changes, suggesting this may help them catch signs of worse health sooner.”
Are there cases in which being neurotic might improve health?
Or is it fair to consider this a "negative" trait?
Well for one thing, highly neurotic individuals “are more likely to seek medical help and receive diagnoses than people with similar health conditions but with lower anxiety,” according to Dr. Weston. So if your neuroticism leads you to seek medical treatment when appropriate, that could be a good thing. However, neurotic individuals also tend to have worse health overall—that association is clear. “But we don't know how much of that is due to chronic stress and unhealthy coping strategies and how much is just a perception of worse health.” Dr. Weston and colleagues are actively investigating this "healthy neuroticism" hypothesis, but so far evidence to support it has been hard to come by.
In the face of the current crisis there is a lot to think about — from understanding how exactly the virus spreads, to following the important advice of washing hands, not touching your face, and avoiding public gatherings (to name a few). We also know that merely thinking about the problem doesn’t help — and that unproductive worrying will just weigh you down.
As for the neuroticism research, “It comes as a shock to approximately no person that our personalities can have an impact on our health,” Weston jokes … but “precisely identifying the ways in which our personalities have that impact can be quite difficult.” It sounds like some of the most exciting work is yet to come. As psychologists team up with health networks and other collaborators, and as modern forms of data access, collection, and analysis improve, our understanding of these questions continues to become clearer.
In the meantime, we should probably all give ourselves a little break. Chronic stress certainly isn't part of the solution (at least not by the most recent CDC guides: https://www.cdc.gov.)
Gouin, J. (2010). Chronic Stress, Immune Dysregulation, and Health American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 5(6), 476-485. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1559827610395467
Hakulinen, C., Hintsanen, M., Munafò, M., Virtanen, M., Kivimäki, M., Batty, G., Jokela, M. (2015). Personality and smoking: individual-participant meta-analysis of nine cohort studies Addiction 110(11), 1844 1852. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/add.13079
Juster, R., McEwen, B., Lupien, S. (2010). Allostatic load biomarkers of chronic stress and impact on health and cognition Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 35(1), 2-16. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.10.002
Larsen, R. (1992). Neuroticism and selective encoding and recall of symptoms: Evidence from a combined concurrent-retrospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62(3), 480 488. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060
Watson, D., Pennebaker, J. (1989). Health complaints, stress, and distress: Exploring the central role of negative affectivity. Psychological review 96(2), 234 254. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.96.2.234
Weston, S., Hill, P., Jackson, J. (2015). Personality Traits Predict the Onset of Disease Social Psychological and Personality Science 6(3), 309-317. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1948550614553248
Weston, S., Jackson, J. (2018). The role of vigilance in the relationship between neuroticism and health: A registered report Journal of Research in Personality 73(), 27-34. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2017.10.005
If it helps, tell us how you've been feeling in the comments!
“Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Want to Know”: How Information Avoidance Can Keep Us Insulated From Important Social Problems
By Alex Garinther
A version of this article was originally published December 2018 on the website www.arithmeticofcompassion.org.
There are more displaced persons in the world today than ever before. Instability in places like Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan has forced millions to flee their homes and seek refuge around the globe. As the demand for open borders has increased, so too has the ability of individuals who are unaffected by these problems to control their media and tune-out this mass suffering, should they choose to.
To make progress on important social issues like the global refugee crisis, we first must be willing to engage with relevant information about the problem. Unfortunately, what a growing body of research suggests is just how hard it is for many of us to do just that—to open ourselves up to the harsh realities of the world. In a sea of news headlines with countless options to choose from, US readers may be more inclined to click past an article about Yemeni plight this December and head their cursor toward a feel-good holiday story instead.
This isn’t exactly surprising; there are a myriad of forces working against us in this effort, and many of them are well-known. Busyness from our own lives, endless distractions, the need to deal with our own happiness, and motivational forces far and wide, both conscious and nonconscious, can get in the way of our ability to engage with unsavory news. Research psychologist Kate Sweeny and her colleagues were among the first to popularize the term “information avoidance,” and describe what might drive this particular human tendency. For those of us who live comfortable day-to-day lives, learning about social injustice can be unpleasant, disheartening, and a frustrating endeavor (especially with problems that seem big and unsolvable, like global poverty or the refugee crisis). We’d rather not take on the emotional burden. Besides, what can we do to help?
Framing the question this way unveils what some consider a less-obvious, sneakier form of information avoidance. Beyond protecting ourselves emotionally, this second form of avoidance is one we deploy strategically—to rationalize decisions that are hard to face. Researchers in Germany Ralph Hertwig and Christoph Engel classify these ideas under the heading “deliberate ignorance”— choosing not to know. It echoes an old schoolyard saying: “You can’t be blamed for what you don’t know.” This clever excuse allows us to eschew liability when we really could be helping. For those who have been studying this process among consumers of the news media, the message is clear: the information we put in front of us is not a matter of mere happenstance—nor is it always a matter of our moral, conscious reasoning—it may have much to do with subconscious, unthinking, or potentially self-serving motives (even when we don’t sense it).
One thing this work tells us is that given the same menu of items, people seem to be consuming very different information diets.
What We Found.
The Decision Research team associated with the University of Oregon has been working to better understand these issues and set out to observe in real-time the process of deliberate ignorance in the face of global resettlement efforts. In one study, we began by asking a panel of Americans to consider whether or not they would like to help refugees in the Middle East by allowing them to relocate to communities across the U.S. The panel of 300 people was close to nationally-representative: mean age of 34 years, 60% male, 60% Caucasian, high school and college-educated, and an even mix of liberals and conservatives. While considering this relocation proposal, we provided our American participants with a menu of information items to consider—short, one-line descriptions similar to news headlines or press briefings. We presented 15 of these information items and allowed participants to choose which ones they would like to incorporate into their thinking about the issue; we said they could select only the most “important” ones.
What we found was that participants who came into the study with attitudes that were already less-than-positive toward refugees were much more likely to hone in on information that might highlight the downsides of refugee settlement (e.g., an analysis of potential risks, crime statistics from other nations who’ve accepted migrants), and much less likely to pay attention to information about who these refugees were as people, what they could contribute, or where they would turn if denied refuge. On the contrary, participants who entered the study with neutral to positive views of refugees tended to select relatively equal amounts of security and humanitarian-related information. One thing this work tells us is that given the same menu of items, people seem to be consuming very different information diets. It also tells us that some percentage of Americans are simply turning a blind eye to the experiences of those in need, and using a cherry-picked base of information to promote exclusionist preferences.
Even with these results, it's important to acknowledge we still don’t know exactly why different people choose to click on different pieces of information. The process is complicated, and probably has multiple causes. We can’t pretend to know what’s going on inside everyone’s head. Maybe those who cherry pick security-related information are genuinely more susceptible to the emotional pull of fear-inducing stimuli. Alternatively, some people might ignore information on international issues but care deeply about helping those in their home communities. Political affiliations certainly play a role, too. These are open questions for future work to explore.
Limitations notwithstanding, findings like these shed some light on why the current US administration has had little problem slashing foreign aid and rebuffing migrant support programs. In our democratic society, the attention of the public is what should and often does direct the attention of our leaders. But if considerable sections of the American public are as likely to ignore relevant information as some of the folks in our study, what kind of pressure are we putting on Washington to support humanitarian action?
Fighting our own deliberate ignorance, and challenging others to do the same, is an important first step toward keeping humanitarian interests a part of this country’s foreign policy agenda. Even taking small actions like clicking on one article per day that we typically would ignore can help open us up to new perspectives and break the cycle of (sometimes nonconscious) information avoidance.