Excerpt: Negative Emotionality and Neuroticism From Childhood Through Adulthood

I don’t make pretty pictures. Sometimes I wish my imagination were fueled by something other than panic and dread. But I don’t have control over my gift. It has control over me, and I am dragged by it more often than not, away from the idyllic land of normal and onto the jagged shores of self-destruction. Imagining the worst has always been a great comfort to me. If there is a turbulence, there is an immediate crash… If there is a lump, it is a tumor. By thinking like this, I protect myself from disappointment. And if anything other than the worst-case scenario unfolds, what a pleasant surprise! The problem is that I am always walking around preparing for and reacting to the horrors of what my brain is making up, living as if every potential terror and every defeat were already happening —because in my mind, it always is.
— Marc Maron

Horizontal Rule with Colgate C

Negative emotions — anxiety, irritation, sadness, vulnerability, insecurity, moodiness — are a universal aspect of human experience. Yet people vary widely in how often and how intensely they experience negative emotions. The comedian, actor, and podcast host Marc Maron has made his high levels of negative emotions the foundation for much of his work; neuroticism is his trademark. Maron’s story offers important insights into the ways that negative emotionality and neuroticism develop and change; affect coping, relationships, and daily functioning; and both shape and are shaped by challenging and stressful life experiences.

What psychological processes accompany and fuel negative emotionality and neuroticism? Maron describes the role that thinking plays in his experience of negative emotionality — the ways that he consistently assumes the worst in order to be ready for whatever negative thing may come.

Childhood negative emotionality and adult neuroticism are associated with attentional and interpretive biases toward threat, as well as with difficulties with cognitive control. Both children and adults who score higher on anxiety show a biased tendency to direct their attention toward threatening stimuli; more anxious adults also have more trouble disengaging with these threatening cues once they fixate on them (Shackman, Stockbridge, et al., 2016). Children, adolescents, and adults with greater anxiety or negative emotionality likewise show a bias toward interpreting ambiguous information in a negative or threatening way (Barlow, Sauer­Zavala, Carl, Bullis, & Ellard, 2014; Stuijfzand, Creswell, Field, Pearcey, & Dodd, 2017); it is notable that the relationship between anxiety and such biases is stronger among adolescents than among children, suggesting that interpretative biases may become more linked with anxiety with age (Stuijfzand et al., 2017). In an interesting recent study, college students’ self-reported neuroticism predicted their tendencies to experience mind wandering in a (presumably stressful) laboratory setting and predicted, in daily life, more racing thoughts, less clear thinking, and more negative thought content in their mind wandering (Kane et al., 2017). Finally, neuroticism in adulthood predicts instability in cognitive processing (e.g., alternating between rapid and atypically slow response rates to stimuli; Robinson & Wilkowski, 2014). Taken together, these studies suggest that negative emotionality (including trait anxiety) is associated with negative processing of information and difficulties with cognitive control.

Neuroticism may undermine people’s motivation and capacities to cope in a positive way when they encounter stress and difficulty. This may occur in part because neuroticism is associated with tendencies toward avoidance, inaction, and various forms of disengagement coping. A meta-analysis of personality traits and coping in youth and adults revealed a modest to moderate relationship between neuroticism and various types of disengagement coping (denial, withdrawal, wishful thinking, and substance abuse; Connor-Smith & Flachsbart, 2007). Neuroticism predicts preferences for inaction across many different cultures (Ireland, Hepler, Li, & Albarracin, 2015) and appears to reduce people’s willingness to exert effort when they are alone and therefore not motivated by the need for approval by others (Uziel, 2016). Neuroticism is linked with avoidance, even including tendencies to perceive nonthreatening stimuli as being further away from the self (Robinson & Witkowski, 2014). Already in infancy, infants’ temperamental negativity predicts more avoidance and fewer attentional regulation strategies several months later (Thomas et al., 2017). These findings are consistent with the model of neuroticism as a manifestation of a threat-detection system: neuroticism likely increases perceptions of threats and therefore leads to avoidance, inactivity, and low effort in the face of potentially distressing situations.

Neuroticism is associated with a number of other problematic patterns of emotion regulation and coping as well. The cognitive and emotional processes associated with neuroticism may lead to impulsive action (Selby, Kranzler, Panza, & Fehling, 2016), rather than simply avoidance. In addition, the previously noted meta-analysis of personality traits and coping strategies revealed that neuroticism has negative relationships with three positive means of coping — problem solving, cognitive restructuring, and acceptance (Connor-Smith & Flachs­bart, 2007). Acceptance of negative emotions and thoughts promotes well-being and psychological health (Ford, Lam, John, & Mauss, 2017), so people who experience high negative emotions that they cannot accept or reinterpret may miss out on the benefits that come from those more engaged forms of coping.

Given all the negative experiences associated with trait neuroticism, one may reasonably expect that individuals who are high on this trait would want to tamp down their negative emotions or their propensity to detect threats in order to feel better. Yet, surprisingly, there may be times in which highly neurotic people prefer to feel negative emotions. It turns out that when people who are high on neuroticism want to perform effectively, they prefer to experience worry, and they may even perform better when in a worried state (Tamir, 2005). Similarly, highly neurotic people prefer to worry before doing a challenging creative task and demonstrate greater creativity and cognitive flexibility when they feel worried, in part because such worry seems to strengthen their intrinsic motivation for the task (Leung et al., 2014). In short, in a performance setting, highly neurotic people perform better when their emotional state (worry, or an activated avoidance system) matches their trait (neuroticism, or motivation toward avoidance). Another interesting pattern that emerges is consistent with the idea that highly neurotic people are motivated to avoid threats: Highly neurotic people experience fewer negative emotions and more life satisfaction in their daily lives when they are cognitively skilled at detecting threats that are present (Tamir, Robinson, & Solberg, 2006), presumably because their strong threat-detection skills allow them to do what they are motivated to do, which is to detect and avoid threats.

Taken together, the relationship between neuroticism and cognitive processing, coping, and emotion regulation has turned out to be complex. The relationships between neuroticism and the various cognitive styles, coping mechanisms, and means of emotion regulation are often only modest to moderate in size, so neuroticism cannot simply be reduced to patterns of cognition, motivation, or coping. Rather, neuroticism may increase the likelihood that people develop certain negative patterns of thinking or styles of coping, but the ultimate effects of neuroticism on people’s well-being may depend on its interaction with those other processes. For example, a study that tracked a group of fearful, inhibited young children into adolescence found not only that the inhibited children showed greater attentional bias to threat as adolescents, but also that early inhibition only predicted social withdrawal in those adolescents with the biased attention to threat (Perez-Edgar et al., 2010). Thus, it is possible that neuroticism may be most problematic for people who struggle with both high levels of negative emotions and negative methods of handling such negative emotions. And at times, the experience of trait-consistent negative emotions that more highly neurotic people accept and feel capable of regulating may even prove beneficial for performance.

The quote from Marc Maron illustrates well these complex patterns of cognition and motivation underlying neuroticism. Maron is biased toward thinking about his experiences in a negative way, but he is content with that cognitive bias (it is a “great comfort”) because it helps protect him from negative outcomes and disappointment. And his panic and dread help fuel his “gift” — his great capacity for creativity and imagination.

Excerpted from the Handbook of Personality Development, edited by Dan P. McAdams, Rebecca L. Shiner, and Jennifer L. Tackett. 2019. Copyright Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission of The Guilford Press.