Researchers studied nearly 4,000 college students in 19 countries and uncovered new details about why neurotic people may avoid making decisions and moving forward with life.
Investigators learned that when they are asked if action is positive, favorable, good, they just don’t like it as much as non-neurotics.
Therefore, persuasive communications and other interventions may be useful if they simply alter neurotics’ attitudes toward inaction.
Dolores Albarracín, Ph.D., from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania served as principal investigator.
The researchers explain that although “neurotic” is a common descriptor, the personality trait “neuroticism” is a complex condition defined by the experience of chronic negative affect — including sadness, anxiety, irritability and self-consciousness. Moreover, it is easily triggered but difficult to control.
Neurotic people tend to avoid acting when confronted with major and minor life stressors, leading to negative life consequences.
The researchers sought to determine whether and under what conditions neuroticism is associated with favorable or unfavorable representations of action and inaction.
They investigated whether depression and anxiety would decrease proactive behavior among neurotic individuals, and whether a person’s collectivistic tendencies — considering the social consequences of one’s behavior before acting — would moderate the negative associations between neuroticism and action/inaction.
The study found neurotics look at action less favorably and inaction more favorably than emotionally stable people do.
“People who are less emotionally stable have less positive attitudes towards action and more positive attitudes toward inaction,” the authors wrote.
“Furthermore, anxiety was primarily responsible for neurotic individuals’ less positive attitudes toward action.
The link between neuroticism and less positive attitudes toward action was strongest among individuals who endorsed more collectivistic than individualistic beliefs.”
People who are interested in reducing the harmful consequences of neuroticism in their own lives should think about how their attitudes toward action might be affecting their behavior, the authors noted.
“By learning to value action, they may be able to change many of the negative behaviors associated with neuroticism and anxiety — such as freezing when they should act, or withdrawing from stress instead of dealing proactively with it,” they said, suggesting that attitudes about action and inaction goals have broad consequences for behavior across diverse contexts and cultures.
“These findings lay the groundwork for finding new methods of studying and ultimately preventing the negative consequence of neurotic action avoidance. Specifically, increasing exposure to action may be sufficient to combat tendencies to avoid proactive behavior.”
The study is published in the Journal of Personality.