A new study derived from an examination of over 50 years of data shows how personality traits can influence weight gain.
In particular, people with personality traits of high neuroticism and low conscientiousness are likely to go through cycles of gaining and losing weight throughout their lives.
Researchers determined impulsivity is the strongest predictor of who will be overweight. Study participants who scored in the top 10 percent on impulsivity weighed an average of 22 lbs. more than those in the bottom 10 percent.
“Individuals with this constellation of traits tend to give in to temptation and lack the discipline to stay on track amid difficulties or frustration,” according to the research team, led by Angelina R. Sutin, Ph.D., at the National Institute on Aging. “To maintain a healthy weight, it is typically necessary to have a healthy diet and a sustained program of physical activity, both of which require commitment and restraint. Such control may be difficult for highly impulsive individuals.”
National Institute on Aging researchers looked at data from a longitudinal study of 1,988 people to determine how personality traits are associated with weight and body mass index.
Their conclusions were published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Experts say this is the first study to examine the relationship between personality and fluctuations in weight over time.
Participants were drawn from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, an ongoing multidisciplinary study of normal aging administered by the National Institute on Aging.
Subjects were generally healthy and highly educated, with an average of 16.53 years of education. The sample was 71 percent white, 22 percent black, 7 percent other ethnicity; 50 percent were women.
All were assessed on what’s known as the “Big Five” personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism — as well as on 30 subcategories of these personality traits.
Subjects were weighed and measured over time. This resulted in a total of 14,531 assessments across the 50 years of the study.
The finding that weight tends to increase gradually with age is consistent for all individuals. But researchers found greater weight gain among impulsive people; those who enjoy taking risks; and those who are antagonistic — especially those who are cynical, competitive and aggressive.
“Previous research has found that impulsive individuals are prone to binge eating and alcohol consumption,” Sutin said. “These behavioral patterns may contribute to weight gain over time.”
Among their other findings: Conscientious participants tended to be leaner and weight did not contribute to changes in personality across adulthood.
“The pathway from personality traits to weight gain is complex and probably includes physiological mechanisms, in addition to behavioral ones,” Sutin said.
“We hope that by more clearly identifying the association between personality and obesity, more tailored treatments will be developed. For example, lifestyle and exercise interventions that are done in a group setting may be more effective for extroverts than for introverts.”