The benefits of being neurotic: The bright side of painting it black

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Lukas Kowald.


 

Neuroticism: The tendency to ruminate and be overly worrisome, anxious and agitated [1]. I am no stranger to all of this. It is the day before my statistics exam and I cannot shake the feeling that I might have overlooked something in my preparations. I nervously revisit the course material and ponder over all my real or imagined shortcomings that could cost me dearly tomorrow. I may feel somewhat guilty because I suspect, I could have done more. But here is the deal. I, and others like me, get things done eventually, despite all the pessimism involved. Might it be that the stress associated with being a neurotic has a silver lining to it? How is it that I get something good out of all these negative feelings, when neuroticism has traditionally been considered to be related to poor work performance and to negative health outcomes [1]?

Neuroticism as evolutionarily desirable and healthy

To understand these dynamics, it helps to establish what neuroticism is good for, and where it comes from. There is a clear link between neuroticism and evolutionarily desirable behavior [1]. Being neurotic helped our ancestors to avoid harm. Those, who were more anxious were more aware of the consequences of getting harmed, and could avoid harm better. Consequently, they scanned their environments more carefully. So from an evolutionary perspective, being on edge often does not seem to be a bad idea at all.

Also with regards to modern day health outcomes, it is interesting to know that new findings suggest, there might be such a thing as healthy neuroticism, a hybrid of neuroticism and another personality trait: Conscientiousness. Having recently been linked to goal pursuit and self-regulation capabilities [3], conscientiousness may enable people who are highly neurotic to harness their anxiety and use it for their own good. These recent findings suggest that high levels of neuroticism and conscientiousness combined may lead people to engage more in healthy behaviors, such as going to the gym. In other words, the worries that neurotic people experience seem to energize them. Neurotics can use their negative emotions as a source of energy to tap into, in order to motivate themselves to perform.

Neuroticism and academic achievement

Relatedly, early on in the history of personality research it was established that neuroticism can be conducive to academic achievement [4]. Additionally, more recent research suggests that people high in neuroticism and low in extroversion may even have an edge over those showing mainly extroverted behavior in emerging as leaders amongst their work group peers, at least in the long run [2]. As their withdrawn temperament may lead to underwhelming but realistic first impressions in coworkers, neurotics have the chance to redeem themselves over time. In the process they may even surpass the more engaging and dominant extroverts, who leave more favorable, but less realistic first impressions. Yet again it seems, as if it is neuroticism that can lead people to prepare and perform extraordinary well in the face of adversity, for example in the context of social expectancies.

In short, contrary to traditional portrayals of neuroticism as being a categorically undesirable trait, physical prosperity as well as vocational success may very well be a consequence of being a neurotic.

All in all it appears that feeling bad does not equal doing badly.

All in all it appears that feeling bad does not equal doing badly. If one can tap into the energy that comes with intense feelings, be they negative or positive in nature, great things are possible, such as being a competent leader or living a more healthy and successful life. There is hope for those amongst us who occasionally fail to see the silver lining, if we just put our quirks to good use.

Relevant links and publications

[1] Watson, David, and Alex Casillas. (2003). “Neuroticism: Adaptive and Maladaptive Features.” Virtue, Vice, and Personality: The Complexity of Behavior: 145-61.

[2] Bendersky, C., and N. P. Shah. (2012). “The Downfall of Extraverts and Rise of Neurotics: The Dynamic Process of Status Allocation in Task Groups.” Academy of Management Journal, 56.2: 387-406.

[3] Turiano, Nicholas A., Daniel K. Mroczek, Jan Moynihan, and Benjamin P. Chapman. (2013).”Big 5 Personality Traits and Interleukin-6: Evidence for “healthy Neuroticism” in a US Population Sample.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 28: 83-89.

[4] Eysenck, H. J., and Michael W. Eysenck. (1985). Personality and Individual Differences: A Natural Science Approach. New York: Plenum.

 

NOTE: Image by Le Luxographe, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Lukas Kowald, born in 1992, in Offenbach am Main Germany, is currently earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology at Groningen University, Groningen, the Netherlands. Amongst others, special research interests include judgment and decision processes, visual perception and processing, affectivity and interpersonal differences. The author is taking part in the Honours College program of Groningen University and is currently conducting research investigating lateral asymmetries in visual stimuli processing at the department of Information processing and task performance. Lukas Kowald is a sports enthusiast and particularly interested in the effects of physical exercise on mood regulation and perception of stimuli. Outside of university life the author holds a keen interest in martial arts, both as a practitioner an as a spectator. Other extracurricular interests of the author include the collecting and trading of records, musicianship and the outdoors.


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