Monday, October 25, 2010

Once a neurotic always a neurotic?

Martin Seligman’s view that authentic happiness comes from using your character strengths makes sense to me. For example, it seems reasonable to expect that activities that would bring lasting happiness to a person whose strengths are curiosity, love of learning and zest would differ from those that would bring lasting happiness to one whose strengths are kindness, fairness and a forgiving nature, or to one whose strengths are judgement, perseverance and leadership. (In his book ‘Authentic Happiness’, Seligman identifies 24 strengths under the general headings: wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance and transcendence.)
Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment

This idea of playing to signature strengths also appeals to the economist in me because it involves specialization on the basis of comparative advantage. Thinking in those terms, specialization doesn’t necessarily enable a person with little education or poor health to achieve a high real income – merely a higher real income than he or she would be able to obtain by attempting to be a jack of all trades. Similarly, a neurotic person – one who has an enduring tendency to experience negative emotions – may not have a life full of joy even if he or she plays to character strengths and focuses activities that do not necessarily require a sunny disposition.

Seligman recognizes that some people whose inherited characteristics make them low in positive affectivity are less likely to be happy. His recommendation for such people is that they should learn to exercise greater control over their emotions by using techniques such as recognizing and disputing negative thoughts.

Happiness: The Science behind Your SmileDo people who successfully follow such advice become less neurotic? From what I have read, the standard answer given by psychologists is ‘no’. For example, Daniel Nettle tells us:

High neuroticism scorers will always be vulnerable to negative thoughts and feelings. That they cannot change. However, there are techniques in which they can train themselves that seem to have quite a marked effect on how they deal with this vulnerability, which can make a great deal of difference to their being in the world' (‘Happiness’, 2005: 113).

Timothy Pychyl has a relevant post on the ‘Psychology Today’ blog in which he notes that some leaders in the field of positive psychology have outed themselves as neurotics. (When I did an online test I discovered that I also have a tendency to be somewhat neurotic – but that would probably be only too obvious to readers this blog as well as to everyone else who knows me.) Pychyl suggests that while neurotics can learn to act out of character they can’t change their personalities.

Survey data suggests that personality traits for the vast majority of people tend to remain stable after age 30. End of story? Well, not quite. Such studies also indicate that a small proportion of individuals undergo significant changes in personality (see: Terracciano, Costa and Mc Crae, ‘Personality plasticity after age 30’, 2006).

There is some recent evidence of personality change during treatment for depression both using drugs (Paxil) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The results of one study, led by Tony Tang, suggest that both the drug therapy and CBT outperformed a placebo and had similar effects in changing neuroticism and extraversion scores.

There has also been some research relating to changes in the brain that might be produced by meditation. A study led by Richard Davidson, which examined changes in brain electrical activity following an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation, found that the program resulted in significantly larger increases in electrical activity in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation (‘Well-being and affective style’, 2004). A more recent paper by Davidson includes the following remarks:
‘Mindfulness training can be hypothesized to change an individual’s relationship to his or her emotions so that they are not viewed as fundamental constituents of self, but rather as more fleeting phenomena that appear to the self. We would not necessarily expect mindfulness training to alter the neural circuitry of emotional responding in response to a challenge per se, but rather we might expect a change in the connectivity between emotion circuits and those used for the representation of self. We would predict decreased connectivity between emotion processing and self-relevant processing regions’ (‘Commentary: Empirical explorations of mindfulness’, 2010).

I don’t claim to know a great deal about neuroticism or meditation (apart from my own limited experience) but if meditation helps people to be calm and composed, and less likely to panic, or feel threatened, stressed out, frustrated, or bothered in the face of challenges, then I would have thought that would probably be reflected in lower neuroticism according to standard measures used by psychologists.

Finally, as an economist, it seems to me that revealed preferences are worth considering. As I have discussed previously, the self-help industry seems successful according to the usual market tests. When people engage in meditation or other forms of contemplation instead of sleeping longer or indulging in more immediately pleasurable activities, this suggests to me that they may actually obtain some of the benefits that they claim in terms of desired changes in personality traits.

There is an update of this post entitled: How much does personality change over time?


Lorraine said...

I tend to operate under the assumption that for every force there is an equal and opposite force. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise to me that the bulk of the audience for 'positive thinking' materials seems to be salescritters.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Lorraine
I had to look up the meaning of salescritter - and found this joke:
Q. What's the difference between a used-car dealer and a computer salesman?
A. The used-car dealer knows he's lying.

Actually, that reminds me that I should probably have mentioned that assymetric information can pose problems with revealed preference in a market like this. Like the used car dealer, the person selling a positive thinking product may know a lot more about the defects of the product he is selling than do the potential buyers. Then again, he might be more like a salescritter than a used car salesman - which isn't any more helpful to the buyer!

DrJJ said...

At the end of the day, "without the data, the chatter doesn't matter", as they say in N.Y.

So are you aware of any data about the proven durable effectiveness of various self-help books, programs, etc.?

Thank you.

Winton Bates said...

Good point DrJJ.

I have seen studies which suggest that some things work e.g the Richard Davidson study on mindfulness meditation cited above.

I haven't seen any studies regarding durability of impacts.
It seems likely that a lot of people move on from one thing to another, e.g. from relaxation training to various forms of meditation, so it might be difficult to disentangle the influence of particular books or forms of training.