Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

woody

Woody Allen. (Photo: Aleš Studený/Shutterstock)

What Makes You Neurotic?

• April 24, 2014 • 12:25 PM

Woody Allen. (Photo: Aleš Studený/Shutterstock)

A new study gets to the root of our anxieties.

A couple of years ago, New York Times reporter Benedict Carey suggested Americans might be more neurotic than ever. The nebbish, anxious persona Woody Allen perfected has lost its prominence in our culture, but it hasn’t disappeared, he argued. It has just become the new normal.

“People of all ages today, and most especially young people, are awash in self-confession, not only in the reality-show of pop culture but in the increasingly public availability of almost every waking thought, through Facebook, Twitter and other social media,” Carey wrote. “If chronic Facebook or Twitter posting is not an exercise in neurosis, then nothing is.”

What makes a neurotic neurotic? We’re all familiar with the character traits—withdrawn moodiness, impulsivity, and a crippling inability to act—but researchers still don’t fully understand neuroticism’s cognitive roots.

“If chronic Facebook or Twitter posting is not an exercise in neurosis, then nothing is.”

Now, a study led by Texas Tech University’s Molly Ireland has shed some new light on the hard-to-pin-down characteristic. Apparently, neurotics really just don’t like doing things.

The study, notable for its scale, surveyed close to 4,000 college students throughout 19 different countries. It measured participants’ levels of neuroticism, anxiety, depression, and “attitudes toward action and inaction” by having them rate their agreement with statements like “action is important in people’s lives” and “inaction offers many benefits.” The results showed a strong correlation between neuroticism and negative attitudes toward action. The findings suggest that the more neurotic you are, the worse doing things makes you feel.

While this may seem obvious, the results actually make a nuanced psychological point. “Highly neurotic individuals do not avoid action despite acknowledging its usefulness, the data suggest,” Ireland writes, “rather they represent action less favorably and inaction more favorably than emotionally stable individuals do.” Neurotics generally don’t stress out because they want to do something but can’t, in other words. They stress out because they don’t want to do anything but know they have to.

As a result, neurotics who tend to be dependent on others—and who live in interdependent cultures—have a particularly tough time, the surveys showed. More individualistic neurotics have an easier time avoiding situations in which things are demanded of them.

The study points out that neuroticism is linked with some pretty serious problems in life, including less satisfying relationships, decreased well-being, and even early death. Ireland and her team say they want their work to help us avoid these issues. “If the negative consequences of neuroticism are driven more by fear than sadness, as our results suggest, then increasing exposure to action may be sufficient to combat tendencies to avoid proactive behavior,” they speculate.

If Americans’ neuroses are only getting deeper like Carey suggests, hopefully the study can be an initial step out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into.

Paul Bisceglio
Editorial Fellow Paul Bisceglio was previously an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine and a staff reporter at Manhattan Media. He is a graduate of Haverford College and completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio.

More From Paul Bisceglio

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.