Certain individuals are more likely to experience positive or negative events due to preexisting personality traits. In other words, personality is sometimes the cause of life events. Notably, people high in extroversion experience more positive events, and those who score high on neuroticism experience more negative ones.
OCEAN — The Big Five Personality Traits
Before we dig into this, let’s refresh on what is known as “Big Five Personality Traits.” (Here’s a link to a previous IFOD on these traits.) Following an acronym of OCEAN, they are:
- Openness to experience refers to the extent to which people are open to new ideas, experiences, and emotions. Open people are curious and imaginative, and they enjoy trying new things. They are also more likely to be creative and artistic.
- Conscientiousness refers to the extent to which people are organized, efficient, and reliable. Conscientious people are typically hardworking and goal-oriented. They are also more likely to be punctual and to meet deadlines.
- Extroversion refers to the extent to which people are outgoing and sociable. Extroverted people are typically energetic and enjoy being around others. They are also more likely to take risks and seek out new challenges.
- Agreeableness refers to the extent to which people are kind, cooperative, and helpful. Agreeable people are typically trusting and forgiving. They are also more likely to be supportive and understanding of others.
- Neuroticism refers to the extent to which people are emotionally stable and resilient. Neurotic people are typically anxious, moody, and easily upset. They are also more likely to experience stress and negative emotions.
Extroversion, Neuroticism and Life Experiences
There have been numerous studies on how personality influences life events and they have consistently found that:
- People who score high in extroversion experience more favorable life events — things like getting married, receiving a big raise, getting promoted, or going on a trip abroad.
- Those who score high on neuroticism experience more negative life events like relationship loss, financial instability, and health problems.
Note that it’s not just the perception of events — extroverts actually experience more positive life events, and those high in neuroticism experience more negative ones.
Why might that be? Researchers speculate:
For extroverts: “Extraversion might be more related to good events because of the social nature of extraversion—extraverts may experience more positive interactions with others. Alternatively, extraverts may seek out positive events to a greater extent because they have a more active reward system that makes such events more strongly reinforcing.” Source.
For those scoring high in neuroticism: “A . . . plausible explanation is that neurotics react to a wider variety of events in a negative way. Alternatively, the negative emotions of neurotics lead them to create more negative events for themselves, especially interpersonal negative events where others react in a punishing way to the neurotic’s expression of negative affect.” Source.
And positive and negative life create a circular pattern of reinforcement. One research paper noted that “positive life events were associated with increases in extraversion and negative life events with increases in neuroticism.” So, extroverts experience positive events that make them more extroverted, and the more negative events that those high in neuroticism experience make reinforce their neuroticism.
Additionally, as you’d expect, extroversion and neuroticism color perception of events. Extroverts experience more frequent and intense positive emotions. This positive affectivity colors their social interactions and predisposes them to interpret events in a more positive light. Likewise, due to chronic negative affect, those scoring high on neuroticism are more likely to interpret ambiguous events as negative. This negativity bias shapes their social realities and becomes self-reinforcing.
A Few Other Interesting Things
What about other aspects of personality? Did they have any relationship to future life events? Those who score high on “Openness to Life Experience” tend to have both more positive and negative life events. This makes sense as these people have more life events. None of the other traits were associated with greater numbers of positive or negative life events.
Also, extroversion and neuroticism are a bit negatively correlated, meaning that those who score high on extroversion tend to be low on neuroticism and vice versa. But not always, as people can be both extroverted and neurotic.
Can you change your personality? Can you become more extroverted and less neurotic? Until recently, psychologists thought that it was impossible to change personality. More recent research suggests that this is not true. It is possible to shift your personality over time. Here’s a good article in the Wall Street Journal that has some guidance on how to change personality.
The studies I drew on for this IFOD are: