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?

Neuroticism
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  • 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.

An artist's depiction of Lola.

Tom Björklund
Surprising Science
  • Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
  • Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
  • The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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