Neuroticism Definition

Neuroticism refers to a broad personality trait dimension representing the degree to which a person experiences the world as distressing, threatening, and unsafe. Each individual can be positioned somewhere on this personality dimension between extreme poles: perfect emotional stability versus complete emotional chaos. Highly neurotic individuals tend to be labile (which means they have plenty of emotional reactions), anxious, tense, and withdrawn. Individuals who are low in neuroticism tend to be content, confident, and stable. The latter report fewer physical and psychological problems and less stress than do highly neurotic individuals.

NeuroticismNeuroticism is associated with distress and dissatisfaction. Neurotic individuals (i.e., those who are high on the neuroticism dimension) tend to feel dissatisfied with themselves and their lives. They are more likely to report minor health problems and to feel general discomfort in a wide range of situations. Neurotic individuals are more prone to negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, depression, anger, guilt). Empirical studies suggest that extremely high levels of neuroticism are associated with prolonged and pervasive misery in both the neurotic individuals and those close to them.

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History of Neuroticism

The concept of neuroticism can be traced back to ancient Greece and the Hippocratic model of four basic temperaments (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic, the latter most closely approximating neuroticism). In modern psychometric studies of personality and psychopathology, neuroticism tends to be identified as a first general factor (i.e., the variable with the broadest power in explaining individual differences). For example, as much as 50% of the variability in “internalizing” forms of psychopathology (mental illness) such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsion, phobia, and hysteria can be explained by a general dimension of neuroticism. For this reason, neuroticism almost always appears in modern trait models of personality, though sometimes with slightly different theoretical formulations or names (e.g., trait anxiety, repression-sensitization, ego-resiliency, negative emotionality). Hans Eysenck popularized the term neuroticism in the 1950s by including it as a key scale in his popular personality inventory. Neuroticism figures prominently in the influential Big Five model of personality disposition and in tests designed to measure the Big Five, such as the NEO Personality Inventory. Neuroticism is even reflected in inventories designed for clinical psychological use, such as the recently developed “Demoralization” scale on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2.

Growing but still limited evidence suggests that most major personality traits (including Neuroticism) identified by Western psychology manifest universally. Evidence of the importance of neuroticism in individuals from diverse cultures (and who use different languages) can be found in large-scale cross-cultural studies of personality.

Biological Basis of Neuroticism

Accruing research data show persuasively that individual differences in neuroticism are substantially heritable (which means they are passed from parent to child). Heritability estimates based on twin studies generally fall in the 40% to 60% range. The remaining individual differences in neuroticism are attributed primarily to unique (nonfamilial) environmental differences; the shared familial environment appears to exert virtually no reliable influence on individual differences in neuroticism. Researchers speculate that overreactivity of the limbic system in the brain is associated with high levels of neuroticism, but specific neurochemical mechanisms or neuroanatomical loci have not yet been identified.

Costs of Extreme Levels of Neuroticism

Highly neurotic individuals are defensive pessimists. They experience the world as unsafe and use fundamentally different strategies in dealing with distress than non-neurotic people do. They are vigilant against potential harm in their environment and constantly scan the environment for evidence of potential harm. They may withdraw from reality and engage in protective behaviors when they detect danger.

Highly neurotic individuals tend to be poor problem solvers. Because of their tendency to withdraw, they tend to possess an impoverished repertoire of behavioral alternatives for addressing the demands of reality. Consequently, they tend to engage in mental role-play (rumination and fantasy) instead of constructive problem-solving behaviors. In contrast to their impoverished behavioral repertoires, however, they may possess a rich inner world. Introspective and apt to analyze their thoughts and feelings, they are highly invested in seeking the true nature of their intrapsychic experiences. Successful artists (e.g., Woody Allen) are sometimes neurotic individuals who have developed creative channels through which to tap their rich, overpopulated intrapsychic worlds.

Although high neuroticism is related to a deflated sense of well-being, high levels of neuroticism are not always associated with unfavorable characteristics. Neurotic behaviors may be essential for survival by facilitating safety through the inhibition of risky behaviors. Neurotic individuals tend to possess high anticipatory apprehension that may orient them to pay closer attention to contingencies previously associated with punishments. Also, the subjective discomfort (i.e., anxiety) regarding violations of social convention is greater in a neurotic individual than in others; thus, it is less likely that a neurotic individual will become involved in antisocial activity. For instance, adolescents with extremely low neuroticism have been shown to possess a higher risk of adult criminality and to experience low levels of uncomfortable physiological arousal over violations of social conventions.

Keenly attuned to their inner experiences, those high in neuroticism are also attentive to their physical discomforts. Their health maintenance behaviors (e.g., consultations with a physician) are more frequent than those of individuals with less neuroticism. Although their complaints regarding health are more frequent, their objectively assessed health is not poorer than those low in neuroticism. To the contrary, their general health is often found to be better, for example, with less frequent diagnosis of cancer. Researchers hypothesize that this finding is attributable to early detection of potentially harmful symptoms associated with frequent health maintenance behaviors.


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