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Personality, Stress and Coping Section
Paul T. Costa, Jr., Ph.D.
Special Volunteer
Overview: A major obstacle to progress in personality psychology for many decades was the inability of psychologists to agree on a taxonomy of traits that would offer a comprehensive yet manageable set of trait constructs. Since 1983, this Laboratory has contributed to a worldwide consensus that the Five-Factor Model points to such a taxonomy. The broad factors of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness appear to encompass most specific traits, and offer a framework for systematic literature reviews and research designs.
Basic Research in Personality - The Five-Factor Model: One focus of research has been a comparison of the NEO-PI-R system with alternative operationalizations of the Five-Factor Model and alternative taxonomies. A popular psychobiological model has been proposed by C. Robert Cloninger and colleagues who assert that there are independent temperament dimensions corresponding to chemically-coded neural networks or brain systems: dopaminergic neurons regulate the dimension of novelty seeking, serotonergic neurons regulate harm avoidance, and norepinephrinergic neurons regulate reward dependence. At the biological level, they argue that the temperament traits are associated with neurochemical substrates that have a genetic basis. One implication of this theory is that genes associated with neurotransmitters should be related to the hypothesized temperament traits. Another implication is that traits hypothesized to have a shared genetic basis should covary at the phenotypic level. According to Cloninger and colleagues, the psychobiological model, as measured by the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI), accounts for the genetic basis of the personality phenotype, whereas alternative models of personality like the five-factor model comprise genetically and environmentally heterogeneous factors. In a study of 946 male and female participants in the BLSA to whom the TCI was administered, 587 were genotyped for a polymorphism in the dopamine D4 receptor (D4DR) and 425 were genotyped for a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) linked promoter region. Results indicated no significant association between D4DR polymorphisms and novelty seeking, and no significant association between 5-HTTLPR polymorphisms and harm avoidance. Furthermore, the factor structure of the TCI did not reveal the hypothesized phenotypic seven-factor structure. This study produced no support for the temperament and character model at either the biological or psychological level.
Personality Changes at Midlife: Past research has demonstrated high levels of stability of adult personality over long time intervals in men. However, few studies here or elsewhere have examined the long-term stability of personality of women; one of the exceptions (the Mills Longitudinal Study of about 100 women) reports appreciable change that invites replication. In collaboration with colleagues at the UNC Alumni Heart Study and Duke University Medical Center, a recently completed study on 495 women and 1,779 men in their 40's and retested after 6 to 9 years, tested hypotheses about the plateauing of rank-order stability and mean-level maturational changes in personality trait levels. Results confirmed previous longitudinal findings confirming basic stability for both women and men at the mid-life: rank-order stability coefficients were high, mean-level changes were small, and life events had only very specific influences on personality. Personality was shown to be resilient in that it was unchanged by the sheer occurrence of reported life events, whether positive or negative; but subjective appraisals of negative life circumstances did show limited effects on personality. Promising directions of future research suggest that events that affect central aspects of one's identity, such as loss of a job or changes in marital status, be a central focus. For both women and men, being fired from a job (vs. promoted) appears to increase Neuroticism (negative affect) and lower aspects of Conscientiousness. Effects of changing marital status differed for men and women: Divorce seemed to be liberating for women, but demoralizing for men.
Applied Research: Stress, Coping, and Psychopathology: Personality traits are important determinants of the ways in which people deal with stress. For example, Extraversion is associated with forms of coping that involve humor, talking about feelings, and seeking support; Agreeableness is associated with stoic and compliant attitudes in the face of stress. Our perspective integrates stress-and-coping research into the broader field of psychology, linked to normal adaptation, psychopathology, and the personality dimensions that affect all these. Traditionally, normal and abnormal psychology were held to be distinct and qualitatively different. Our research has shown that in many respects they are closely related, and thus that knowledge from one field is relevant to the other. For example, some of our research has focused on depression. We have shown that depressive symptoms are related to the normal personality disposition Neuroticism, can be predicted years in advance from personality traits, and can themselves predict psychiatric diagnoses noted in hospitalization records. Perhaps most important, we have also shown that depressive symptoms and the personality traits that predispose people to depression do not increase as a normal consequence of aging. Most older people are not depressed, and those that are should receive appropriate treatment.
Several studies have examined the potential of the five-factor model of personality to describe and differentiate various health risk behaviors among HIV and AIDS related patient groups. Perceived risk of contracting HIV has been theoretically and empirically linked to the likelihood of engaging in HIV risk behaviors; however, little is known regarding the determinants of risk perceptions and perceived risk of contracting HIV. A recent study examined the extent to which perceptions of risk are determined by HIV-related knowledge, history of engaging in HIV risk behaviors, and personality variables. Consistent with previous research from this laboratory linking low Openness to Experience (O) to defensive denial, individuals who engage in unsafe sex and deny any risk for contracting HIV had lower O scores than individuals who engage in unsafe sex and accept that they are at risk. Low O may facilitate minimization or even denial of risk as relatively closed individuals have difficulty imagining that these consequences apply to them and are closed to the feelings involved in dealing with a sense of vulnerability. Another study investigated how FFM personality traits are related to adherence to highly active anti-retroviral therapies (HAART) for HIV. Preliminary results suggest that individuals endorsing personality traits associated with high conscientiousness, openness and agreeableness report greater adherence to HAART; traits associated with neuroticism (e.g., depression) and extraversion (e.g., high excitement-seeking) were related to less than medically necessary adherence; and greater levels of angry hostility, lower gregariousness and lower positive emotions were associated with higher viral loads. These findings have direct implications for psychosocial interventions designed to sustain or improve adherence to HAART among HIV+ individuals.
Axis II of the DSM-IV is used for the diagnosis of personality disorders, which are defined as inflexible and maladaptive personality traits. It is reasonable to ask whether these traits are the same as or different from those encountered in non-psychiatric populations. Several recent studies on this question have concurred in finding strong and replicable links between scales measuring personality disorders and the five factors in both normal and clinical populations. The potential of the five-factor model of personality to describe and differentiate personality disorders was suggested by research in North American samples of patients and psychiatrically normal individuals. Relatively little research has examined relations between the FFM and personality disorders in psychiatric patient populations in other cultures. Former Visiting Scientist Dr. Jian Yang, in collaboration with investigators from the PSCS and the Hunan Medical University, conducted a multi-center study of over 2,000 psychiatric inpatients and outpatients throughout the People's Republic of China. Results showed that both personality traits and personality disorders can be reliably measured by Chinese translations of American instruments, and that the pattern of correlations between personality traits and disorders appears similar in China to that which has been reported in the US (cite). The results of these studies suggest that conceptions and measures of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) personality disorders are cross-culturally generalizable to Chinese psychiatric populations, and both personality disorders and personality traits may reflect biologically-based individual differences common to the human species as a whole. This is one of over 50 studies linking normal personal dimensions and personality disorders together they have led to a fundamental reconceptualization of the field of personality and psychopathology: Personality disorders do not correspond to discrete psychiatric entities, rather they are better construed as a systematic collection of problems in living associated with different dimensions of personality.
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Updated: Monday August 02, 2010