Neuroticism: The Big Five Personality Types Explained

From the lecture series: Why You are Who You Are — Investigations into Human Personality

By Mark Leary, Ph.D, Duke University

The second most important personality trait is usually called neuroticism, but because the word neuroticism has such negative connotations, many researchers now call it emotional stability. Whatever we call it, the central feature of neuroticism or emotional stability is the degree to which people experience negative emotions.

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This is the third article in a series about the big five personality types. You might prefer to start with the first post: The Science Behind the Five Major Personality Types

People who are higher in neuroticism tend to experience negative emotions more frequently than people who are low in neuroticism, and their negative emotions tend to be more intense, and they last longer. Some people simply experience unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, and regret more than other people do. In fact, some researchers call this trait negative emotionality, which describes it pretty well.

The central feature of neuroticism or emotional stability is the degree to which people experience negative emotions.

Defining Features of Neuroticism

Although the defining feature of neuroticism involves negative emotionality, people who are high in neuroticism also display a general sense of insecurity and vulnerability. People who are high in neuroticism are more afraid of things that don’t bother other people very much, and they tend to worry more about bad things that might happen in the future.

This is a transcript from the video series Why You are Who You Are: Investigations into Human Personality. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

As they walk through life, they focus on the possible risks ahead—risks involving their physical safety, possible failures, public embarrassments, rejections, and so on. So, they try to avoid situations that look risky or threatening. People who are high in neuroticism also tend to overreact to ordinary sorts of hassles and frustrations. They get bent out of shape more easily than people low in neuroticism.

They’re also less satisfied with their lives, which isn’t surprising. If you tend to experience negative emotions frequently, everything seems less satisfying. At the other end of the continuum, people who are very low in neuroticism walk through life with a certain amount of equanimity, and they tend to be more satisfied with life. Not surprisingly, then, people who score higher in neuroticism need more emotional support from other people, so they often tend to be somewhat needy and dependent.

Learn more about how strongly related a particular personality characteristic is to behaviors

Negative Impact on Health and Relationships

People who are high in neuroticism are more afraid of things that don’t bother other people very much, and they tend to worry more about bad things that might happen in the future.

High neuroticism is not only distressing for people, but it’s also associated with a number of negative outcomes.

For example, neuroticism predicts more conflict and lower satisfaction in people’s marriages and other close relationships. The more people experience negative emotions, the more volatile their relationships tend to be.

And the romantic partners of people who are high in neuroticism are less satisfied with their relationships as well. It’s harder to live with a partner who’s high in negative emotionality. People high in neuroticism also experience a greater number of health problems. They have a higher mortality rate, and they’re particularly likely to get heart disease.

Not only does a high level of stress create certain medical problems directly, but negative emotions can compromise the immune system in a way that makes it harder for the body to deal with whatever problem the person has. The connection is so strong that some psychologists have called neuroticism a major public health problem.

Learn more about the five key traits that best help us understand a person’s behavior

But why do some people experience more negative emotions than others do? Some people are born with brains that respond more strongly to negative events, so they react more easily to threats of various kinds. But children can also learn to be neurotic to some extent.

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When parents are anxious or angry or upset a lot, their children learn to view high emotionality as normal, and they don’t observe their parents using effective coping strategies that we all need to get by. On top of that, parents who openly express their own fears and concerns and who are overprotective can lead their children to perceive the world as a dangerous and unhappy place.

And worse, parents who are neglectful, rejecting, or abusive can cause their children to be chronically fearful and vulnerable.

As I mentioned, extraversion and neuroticism are the most important, most informative traits in the human personality. If you could have only 2 pieces of information about someone that would give you the broadest picture of what they are like, you’d probably want to find out about how extraverted and how neurotic they are. But there’s a lot more to personality than extraversion and neuroticism.

Learn more about the building blocks of agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness

In the next post on personality types, we look at the third most important trait—agreeableness.

Common Questions About Neuroticism

Q: What characterizes a neurotic person?

Neuroticism is a personality trait where a person has a strong tendency to be anxious or in a negative state of mind and suffer depression and other ailments from this tendency.

Q: What are some of the signs of neuroticism?

Neuroticism often afflicts those with a high level of OCD behavior. There are many behavioral symptoms which point to neuroticism such as unpleasant or disturbing thoughts, repetition and obsession as well as phobic avoidance.

Q: Does neuroticism hold any benefits?

Neuroticism has benefits of character such as a more sophisticated sense of humor, a higher threshold for disappointment due to less unrealistic expectations, and the need to provide for others.

Q: Can neuroticism be treated?

Recent studies have shown the most successful treatment for neuroticism is therapy.

This article was updated on 12/6/2019

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