The perks of being a bit neurotic

It's one of our five major personality traits, and arguably, it's the worst one. Why are some human beings neurotic?

  • Scoring high in neuroticism is associated with a slew of negative outcomes for your physical and mental health.
  • However, it appears to be an inherited trait, one that has persisted through the many thousands of years of human evolution.
  • Some researchers argue that in the environment where humans first evolved, being a little neurotic may have been highly beneficial.

Say you're visiting your friend, who lives in a city. You've found some street parking a few blocks away, had a few drinks, and now you've settled into bed. Suddenly, your eyes snap open. Did you lock your car? You always lock your car when you close the door, so you probably did lock it. But you're not going to get to sleep unless you wake your friend up, ask him for the keys so you can get back into the apartment, trudge a couple of blocks down, and click the button on your fob until you hear that reassuring beep. You might go to the car and give the handle a few tugs for good measure, just to be sure. Finally, you can settle back into sleep, but you're tortured by dreams of somebody breaking into and stealing your car despite all this.

While some might have rested easy knowing that they have never left their car unlocked, in this hypothetical scene, you're a highly neurotic individual. Neuroticism is one of the Big Five personality traits, and it's characterized by an extreme sensitivity to negative stimuli (in this scenario, the imagined stimuli of having your car broken into).

Compared to the other Big Five personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness — it's easily the crummiest of the lot. Individuals high in neuroticism are prone to anxiety and worrying, anger and fear, depression, jealousy, loneliness, and pretty much every other unpleasant state of mind. As a logical consequence of all this stress, they tend to suffer from poorer mental and physical health.

Which begs the question: Why does the human personality even allow for neuroticism? Is it a mistake, the result of some genetic fluke that supercharges your wires with anxiety? Some researchers say no; neuroticism may have played an important role in our species' ancient past.

Surviving and thriving through constant worrying

In the general population, neuroticism follows the normal distribution, meaning most people converge on a typical degree of neuroticism, with individuals scoring high or low in neuroticism becoming increasingly rarer and rarer as their scores grow more extreme. Coupled with the fact that a significant chunk of neuroticism is inherited, there is likely some evolutionary benefit to being a little neurotic.

In the environment that we evolved in, the consequences of being harmed were dire — breaking a leg from a fall, having a meal stolen by another animal, or being attacked by a predator would often result in death, and, as a consequence, the end of your genetic line. Neurotic individuals tend to interpret ambiguous stimuli as dangerous and react more quickly and strongly to negative stimuli, which would make them less likely to expose themselves to dangerous environments or to take risks. Although the modern world is fairly safe, we can still see this mechanism at play; individuals who partake in extreme and dangerous activities like, say, climbing Mount Everest, tend to score unusually low in neuroticism.

The same mechanism applies to social interaction as well. Human beings are highly social animals, and one of the hallmarks of neuroticism is self-consciousness and shyness, traits which at first blush don't seem beneficial to a social life. Today, they certainly aren't, but in our past, a highly neurotic individual wouldn't be likely to cause any major waves in their group and would be very wary of engaging in a negative social interaction. Thus, ostracization would be less of a threat, and, with the support of their group, they would live longer, providing them with more chances to reproduce.

Admittedly, highly neurotic individuals are less likely to make close relationships with others. Not only that, but the personality trait is also associated with poorer mental and physical health, characteristics which would suggest that lower neuroticism should be selected for instead.

The downsides to neuroticism are well known, but there are actually some benefits to neuroticism beyond just avoiding danger. Individuals who score highly on neuroticism tend to be more competitive and to attain more academic success than their less worry-prone peers. The reason, ostensibly, is that these individuals are driven to escape negative conditions (such as poverty), driving them to achieve greater status. Furthermore, personality is a complicated thing, and many of the most negative aspects of high neuroticism can be mitigated by other factors. Some researchers speculate that traits such as high intelligence, impulse control, conscientiousness, and others may reduce neuroticism's downsides while enhancing its upsides.

A neurotic sweet spot

Thus, it may be the case that our environment selected for a Goldilocks-level of neuroticism. Those who were overly neurotic would be at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and all the other poor mental and physical health outcomes associated with neuroticism, making them less likely to succeed and reproduce. Those with low neuroticism would needlessly expose themselves to danger and starve, get injured, or get eaten before they could reproduce. Those with just the right amount of neuroticism would avoid threats, work hard to avoid negative status, maintain their mental and physical well-being, and maximize their chance at propagating their genome.

Of course, the same selection pressures don't apply to us today, and any highly neurotic individual is likely to curse their fearful ancestors for making themselves so damn nervous all the time. Luckily, studies have shown that neuroticism can be reduced to some degree through therapy, and mindfulness meditation has been shown to have the largest impact in terms of reducing anxiety and depression in individuals who score highly for neuroticism.

There's also the fact that even today, outside of the wild environment in which we first evolved, there are benefits to being a little neurotic. Highly creative individuals tend to be more neurotic, and individuals who score highly for both neuroticism and conscientiousness tend to channel their anxiety into healthy behaviors, such as going to the gym or working more diligently. So, the next time you find yourself awake at night worrying about some mundane detail, just remember that it's thanks to that worry that your ancestor didn't get eaten by a jaguar.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

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The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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