In the past 30 years, personality researchers have amassed a considerable body of evidence to support the importance of traits as crucial determinants of behavior. This research has shown that personality is structured similarly across over 50 cultures, shows evidence of genetic heritability, has high stability across time, and does not relate strongly to parental rearing style. Although several pathways for how personality interacts with health have been postulated, most physical activity (PA) research has been based on the hypothesis that personality affects the quality of one’s health practices. More specifically, personality is hypothesized to affect social cognitions (e.g., perceptions, attitudes, norms, self-efficacy) toward a behavior, which in turn influence the health behavior itself.
Personality Trait Structure
Although several models of trait personality have been researched and postulated, the dominant two frameworks are Hans Eysenck’s three-factor model and the five-factor model (FFM). Eysenck originally developed his theory with two factors: extraversion–introversion (e.g., tendency to be sociable, assertive, energetic, seek excitement, and experience positive affect) and neuroticism–emotional stability (e.g., tendency to be emotionally unstable, anxious, self-conscious, and vulnerable). He later added a third trait called psychoticism–superego (e.g., risk taking, impulsiveness, irresponsibility, manipulativeness, sensation seeking, toughmindedness, nonpragmatism) to his model. The most popular personality model at present is a five-factor taxonomy. This model suggests that neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience and intellect (e.g., tendency to be perceptive, creative, reflective and appreciate fantasy, and aesthetics), agreeableness (e.g., tendency to be kind, cooperative, altruistic, trustworthy, and generous), and conscientiousness (e.g., tendency to be ordered, dutiful, self-disciplined, and achievement oriented) are the basic factors of personality structure.
Both the three and five-factor taxonomies are thought to represent the basic building blocks of personality and subsequently cause the expression of more specific subtraits. Thus, individuals high in extraversion may express this higher-order trait through excitement seeking, sociability, a positive outlook, energetic activity, or another possible outlet that is feasible and socially conditioned from one’s environment. Mixtures of these five factors of personality may also produce traits of interest. For example, type A behavior may be a combination of high extraversion, high neuroticism, low agreeableness, and high conscientiousness. While it is important to continue with a higher-order supertrait understanding of personality and behavior, these facet or specific traits may also help define the relationship between personality and specific behaviors like PA.
Personality and Physical Activity
In 2006, Ryan E. Rhodes and N. E. I. Smith reviewed and systematically appraised the relationship between personality and PA for the three and five-factor models of personality. Overall, neuroticism showed a small negative relationship with PA, while extraversion and conscientiousness had positive correlations. The most compelling evidence for these relationships is from a 40-year longitudinal trial conducted by Margaret L. Kern and colleagues in which neuroticism and extraversion were found to be predictive of PA changes across time. Agreeableness and openness to experience did not have a relationship with PA. Eysenck’s third construct of psychoticism also had no evidence of a relationship with PA.
Extraversion concerns the differences in preference for social interaction and lively activity; the seeking of PA behaviors appears a logical extension for people high in this trait while the disinterest in PA seems likely for those low in extraversion. Individuals with high neuroticism are those with less emotional stability and more distress, anxiety, and depression than those with lower neuroticism. Avoidance of PA or cancellation of PA plans is a logical extension of this trait. High scores of conscientiousness represent a purposeful, self-disciplined individual, suggesting that this factor may be important in terms of adherence behavior. The predisposition to maintain PA behavior appears to be logical for individuals who possess higher conscientiousness than their low conscientiousness counterparts.
Rhodes and Smith and a follow-up review also examined whether other variables interacted with the relationship between personality and PA. The stability of personality suggests that it should be relatively invariant to most factors across demographics and cultures and this is generally what was found. They concluded that no reliable differences by gender, age, and study design or instrumentation were evident. They did notice a potential trend by country, where extraversion had a larger correlation with PA in Canada and the United States than in the United Kingdom. They also found that strenuous and moderate intensity modalities of PA may be associated with personality factors of neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness more than lower intensity activities.
Rhodes and Leila A. Pfaeffli reviewed the evidence for several of the more specific facet and lower-order traits and their relationship with PA. Sociability (preference for the company of others and gravitation to social situations) and dispositional optimism (generalized expectations of positive outcomes) were not related to PA, but type A, activity, and industriousness-ambition showed some evidence as correlates.
Type A personality gained popularity from its association with coronary heart disease and it is marked by a blend of competitiveness and hostility with agitated behavior and continual movement patterns; thus, PA could conceivably be a natural extension of type A individuals. Rhodes and Pfaeffli reviewed six studies that have appraised the relationship between type A and PA. Overall, five of the six studies in nonclinical populations showed some significant positive association between type A and PA in the small to medium effect size (ES) range.
Extraversion’s activity facet represents a disposition toward a fast lifestyle, being high energy, fast talking, and keeping busy as opposed to a more laissez faire disposition. These properties could conceivably make regular PA a behavior of choice given its energy demands. Rhodes and Pfaeffli’s literature review identified six studies that have examined the association of the activity facet with PA. In all cases, the activity facet showed a medium to large correlation with behavior. More compelling, the three studies directly comparing the predictive capacity of activity against the superordinate dimension of extraversion showed the superiority of the activity facet. Overall, the results suggest that extraversion’s activity facet is a reliable and strong predictor of PA.
Conscientiousness’s facet of industriousness–ambition has also received attention in four studies. The facet comprises aspects of achievement-striving and self-discipline and a natural extension of this type of disposition could be regular exercise given its challenge, impact on health and appearance, and self-regulatory barriers. Three of the four studies found a significant relationship between this facet and behavior, suggesting it may be the critical link between conscientiousness and PA.
Mediation and Moderation Tests of Physical Activity and Social Cognition
Personality theorists and social psychologists generally agree that behavioral action is unlikely to arise directly from personality. Instead, personality is thought to influence behavioral perceptions, expectations, and cognitions. The theory of planned behavior (TPB) has been the leading model to test this assumption in the PA domain with 16 of these tests. According to Icek Ajzen, personality should affect behavior through the constructs of attitude, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control. Thus, the TPB should mediate personality and PA relations. This test, however, was only supported in 3 of the 16 studies. The remaining tests showed evidence for only partial mediation. Overall, the results suggest that attitudes, social norms and perceived control may not always fully mediate the relationship between personality and PA.
Another way that personality may affect behavior is by interacting with PA motivation. A review of factors that interact with the intention-behavior relationship found convincing evidence that conscientiousness may alter this relationship. The basic premise for this finding is that people who are more conscientious are more likely to act on their good intentions than their less conscientious counterparts. It may be that the disposition toward achievement keeps high-conscientiousness individuals from slipping in their original PA plans. There is also some evidence that extraversion may interact with intention. The rationale behind this proposed relationship is that individuals high on extraversion may facilitate their intentions through gravitating toward active environments than more introverted individuals.
Personality and Intervention
Based on the enduring and stable nature of traits, it seems it would be a difficult enterprise to plan an intervention to change personality. Personality traits have been shown to change, particularly in adolescence, but change among adults generally unfolds very slowly across the life cycle. Personality should resemble other intractable correlates of PA such as age, disability, or gender. Introverts or less conscientious individuals may need targeted interventions to help them increase PA despite a natural inclination to be less active.
The proposal for personality-matched interventions has appeal, but very limited research has been conducted on this approach. Rhodes and D. H. Matheson examined whether a planning intervention among low-conscientiousness individuals could help improve PA over a control group. The effects were null, but it may have been from an ineffective intervention as most of the participants reported that they did not even complete the planning worksheet. By contrast, Yong Peng Why and colleagues examined the effects of a walking intervention and found that messages were more effective in increasing walking behavior among conscientious individuals than their less conscientious counterparts. The results underscore that personality traits may need targeting to help less conscientious individuals.
Personality psychology has a rich and spirited history, but contemporary research has supported the premise that people have enduring and stable individual differences in how they express thoughts, feelings, and actions. A review by Rhodes and Smith identified extraversion (r = .23), neuroticism (r = –.11), and conscientiousness (r = .20) as the key personality dimensions related to PA. A subsequent review of the more specific facets suggested that extraversion’s facet of activity and adventurousness and conscientiousness’ facet of achievement striving and ambition may be the critical components that are related to PA. Type A personality, which includes components of both the activity and achievement striving traits (as well as hostility), was also shown as a reliable predictor of PA.
There is some evidence that these traits may affect PA through social cognitive constructs such as attitudes, norms, and perceived behavioral control. Personality may also affect the success of holding to positive PA intentions. Research has been quite convincing in demonstrating that people low on conscientiousness have more difficulty holding to their initial PA intentions than people who are high on conscientiousness. The findings suggest that understanding “at risk” personalities may be important when creating interventions. Interventions that consider one’s introversion, for example, and target behaviors accordingly (e.g., home-based, solo or with one friend, low intensity) may have utility. The topic has not received very much research at present. Future research is needed to examine this personality matching strategy.
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- Rhodes, R. E., & Pfaeffli, L. A. (2012). Personality. In E. O. Acevedo (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of exercise psychology (pp. 195–223). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Rhodes, R. E., & Smith, N. E. I. (2006). Personality correlates of physical activity: A review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40,958–965.
- Why, Y. P., Huang, Z. R., & Sandhu, P. K. (2010).Affective messages increase leisure walking only among conscientious individuals. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 752–756. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.022