A new study shows that your friends’ assessments of your personality may offer insight into how long you’ll live. The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.
Scientists have long known that personality is a strong indicator of future health and longevity. For example, traits such as openness and agreeableness are linked to longer lives, while neuroticism and pessimism are linked to shorter, unhealthier lives.
However, since self-reports of personality are notoriously biased, researchers wanted to know if the opinions of friends would give a more accurate picture of a person’s mortality; it turns out they do.
For the study, psychological scientist Joshua Jackson of Washington University in St. Louis and colleagues analyzed data from the Kelly/Connolly Longitudinal Study. The research began back in the 1930s, when 600 participants in their mid-20s — 300 engaged couples — volunteered for a study of personality and new marriages.
The questionnaire included personality ratings given by five close friends — most of them members of the wedding party. It also included self-ratings of personality.
Seventy-five years later (last year), the scientists tracked down most of the original volunteers or their obituaries. They then compared the friends’ views with the volunteers’ views of themselves to see which was a better predictor of life and death.
According to the findings, the men’s self-reports were fairly accurate at predicting life and death, though not as good as their friends’ assessments. The women’s self-reports, however, were fairly inaccurate at predicting mortality.
For all the young participants who were just entering adulthood 75 years ago, their friends picked up on traits in their personalities more strongly related to health and well-being — insights that could prove relevant to public health policy today.
For example, young men who were described by their groomsmen as conscientious and open to experience went on to live the longest lives.
Conscientiousness and openness are two of the so-called Big Five personality traits. Conscientious people are dutiful, disciplined, organized, and dependable, while open people are intellectually curious and inventive. Men with these two traits lived longer — or alternatively, those lacking these traits died earlier.
Females had a different set of traits linked to longevity. High levels of agreeableness and emotional stability — as identified by their bridesmaids and other close friends — were linked to the longest lives. Emotional stability is the opposite of neuroticism — the tendency toward anger and anxiety and depression — while agreeableness encompasses cooperation and compassion.
The findings should be viewed in historical context, however, say the scientists. The participants were coming of age in the 1930s, when the positive traits were indicative of a supportive and easy-going wife — typically considered the emotional leader of the family.