No one likes to experience being rejected, but people high in the quality of interpersonal sensitivity (IS) are particularly vulnerable to fears about being left alone and isolated. As it turns out, being high on this set of personality tendencies is more than unpleasant. Interpersonal sensitivity can actually be harmful to your health.
In a far-reaching review of published journal articles, University of British Columbia psychologists Teresa Marin and Gregory Miller sifted through a whopping 75 studies in which they examined the negative health consequences of people high in IS. They define IS as a constellation not just of personality traits, but of motivation, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
In study after study, the associations that Marin and Miller report were clear: people high in IS have higher rates of illness and death. The most consistent results were found in the area of infectious disease. High-IS people are more susceptible to everything from the common cold to faster rates of progression if they are HIV-positive. Cardiovascular disease is another potential killer of the interpersonally sensitive.
What is it about IS that might lead people high in IS to be more susceptible to disease? The list of possibilities might seem almost endless. If you’re a model student of psychology, or just a frequent reader of the blog, you’re thinking that this is another variation of the “correlation doesn’t equal causation” problem. This particular kind of sensitivity might make people more susceptible to getting sick, but they may get sick because they’re in poor health, which also makes them more anxious in general. It’s also possible that people who are anxious are depressed, and that their negative mood increases their illness susceptibility. It’s also possible that high susceptibility to such causes of illness and death as cardiovascular disease and cancer are due to such factors over which people have little control, such as social class, gender, and ethnicity.
Other candidates for factors that account for the IS-illness link are hostility (known to be related to heart disease), loneliness and lack of social support, and lifestyle factors such as amount of exercise. Not everyone agrees that IS is as detrimental to health as Marin and Miller claim it is (e.g. Denollet, 2013; Smith, 2013). Either way, it’s clear that this is an intriguing area of research that warrants further research (Marin & Miller, 2013b).
Some of the data that Marin and Miller analyze do make a pretty strong case for the "IS causes illness" argument. The most fascinating were studies in which participants are exposed to a cold virus, and then the researchers wait to see who develops that cold. The high-IS participants were, in the large majority of cases, likely to become the snifflers.
It will probably never be possible to conduct the perfect controlled experiment on personality and its relation to health. In the meantime, you can benefit from knowing the 8 factors that constitute IS and then learning to keep them from taking over your life. Try rating yourself on each one, and if you think you come out too high, read on to find out how to lower your own tendencies to show this variant of the IS set of tendencies.
In summary, although psychologists view these 8 qualities as immutable “dispositional” factors that we’re more or less born with, there are plenty of reasons to expect that once you know about them, you can start to turn them around. Personality change is possible, no matter what your age, allowing you to improve your outlook and your health.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Denollet, J. (2013). Interpersonal sensitivity, social inhibition, and Type D personality: How and when are they associated with health? Comment on Marin and Miller (2013). Psychological Bulletin, 139, 991-997. doi:10.1037/a0033537
Marin, T. J., & Miller, G. E. (2013a). The interpersonally sensitive disposition and health: An integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 941-984. doi: 10.1037/a0030800
Marin, T. J., & Miller, G. E. (2013b). Taking the middle ground, where the path is most clear: Reply to Smith (2013) and Denollet (2013). Psychological Bulletin, 139, 998-999. doi:10.1037/a0033977
Smith, T. W. (2013). Does the interpersonally sensitive disposition advance research on personality and health? Comment on Marin and Miller (2013). Psychological Bulletin, 139, 985-990. doi:10.1037/a0033993