Expecting the Worst Can Lead to the Worst If You're Neurotic
A new study shows how neurotics create their own self-fulfilling prophecies.
Posted May 28, 2019
You’re about to meet a new person, perhaps a potential dating partner you met online or an employer who’s invited you to a job interview. These seem like great opportunities, but they fill you with inner questions and fears. Will they like you enough to pursue a relationship, romantic or occupational? What will you do to keep the conversation going once you're there? You think back on times you’ve failed in similar situations and can only imagine the most negative outcomes for this upcoming event. If you say the wrong thing, you’ll set yourself up for more disappointment. What if you let your political beliefs slip out into the conversation, only to find that this person holds the opposite set of views? What if your mind goes blank when you're trying to answer a key question?
According to the cognitive theory of emotions, the dysfunctional beliefs people hold prevent them from experiencing happiness and lead them to feel depressed and anxious. These dysfunctional beliefs include ideas such as being convinced other people don’t like you, expecting the worst from a new situation, and using the times you didn’t succeed as proof that you’ll never succeed in the future. Cognitive theory predicts that the negative beliefs you hold about yourself, or your self-schemas, cause you to view your experiences through a distorted set of perceptions. However, what leads you to hold these negative views in the first place? One possibility is that you’ve had so many negative experiences in the past that you’ve grown used to failure, and it’s now ingrained into your identity. Another is that your personality traits are bending your perceptions in such a way as to make it impossible for you to expect any good things to happen to you.
A new study by Wilson McDermut and colleagues at St. John’s University in New York City suggests that personality traits do play an important role in affecting people’s dysfunctional beliefs and, as a result, their happiness. They note that these beliefs “both characterize personality dysfunction and perpetuate it by generating interpretations that are molded to fit those existing schemas” (p. 2). Oddly enough, however, the research team observes that the research literature on personality and the literature on dysfunctional beliefs have little overlap. But given the well-established body of evidence for both the dimensional view of personality disorders, as well as the acceptance of cognitive theory in depression, these two literatures should be able to inform each other. In other words, your personality may very well set the stage for you to hold beliefs that will get in the way of your success and happiness. The question is how.
Across two studies, the St. John’s researchers built a model that would allow them to answer these questions. They used two measures of traits to capture personality pathology. These included scales from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory as revised (MMPI-2-RF) to assess pathological levels of neuroticism, introversion, psychoticism, aggressiveness, and disconstraint (lack of emotional control). To assess non-pathological traits, the authors administered the Five-Factor Model of personality questionnaire as their second measure of personality, which contains scales of emotional stability (the reverse of neuroticism), extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness.
The dysfunctional attitudes questionnaire that McDermut and collaborators used were, in the first study, other scales from the MMPI-2, which provided scores on the “internalizing” (i.e. negatively self-focused) tendencies toward feelings of helplessness or hopelessness (“I recognize several faults in myself that I will not be able to change”) and self-doubt (“I am certainly lacking in self-confidence”). Additionally, they selected the strongest items, measurement-wise, from dysfunctional beliefs questionnaires. Examples of these items include “My value as a person depends greatly on what others think of me,” and “If I fail at my work, then I am a failure as a person.”
In the second study, the authors turned to a different scale of dysfunctional beliefs that included statements on which participants rated themselves, such as "If you cannot do something well, there is little point doing it at all," and “If I fail partly, it is as bad as being a complete failure.”
As outcomes, the authors incorporated a variety of measures across the two studies intended to assess psychological symptoms that should, according to theory, result from a combination of personality traits and dysfunctional beliefs. These outcomes included depression, anxiety, anger, demoralization (“I wish I could be as happy as others seem to be”), and cynicism (“I think a great many people exaggerate their misfortunes in order to gain the sympathy and help of others”). In the first study, the outcome measures also included the more positively-framed scale of life satisfaction.
In both studies, undergraduate students who were drawn from non-clinical sources completed the questionnaires in a single online session for which they received course credit toward their psychology grades. It is important to keep this in mind when interpreting the findings, because due to their age, the snapshot nature of the study, and the lack of clinically-relevant symptoms, the results might not apply to broader samples of adults whose personalities and dysfunctional beliefs evolve over time. Nevertheless, despite the use of correlational methods only, the authors were able to test a model in which the contributions of the personality trait predictors and dysfunctional beliefs could be evaluated relative to the negative outcomes, on the one hand, and life satisfaction, on the other.
The findings revealed that, as predicted, the potentially pathological traits of neuroticism or negative emotionality, psychoticism, and introversion predicted dysfunctional beliefs which, in turn, were significantly related to negative emotional outcomes. Of the three significant traits, neuroticism by far outweighed the other two; in the second study, only negative emotionality and emotional stability (reversed) predicted demoralization. Scores on cynicism related only to dysfunctional attitudes, with no personality traits proving to be significant. As the authors conclude, their results are consistent with “a model positing that dimensions of personality produce a variety of negative emotional outcomes by operating through a dysfunctional belief system” (p. 15), particularly in the case of demoralization. Introversion, in the first study, also negatively predicted life satisfaction. In other words, if you are already inclined to be a worrier by virtue of highly neurotic tendencies, your negative expectations about failing in those key personal or professional events will only make things that much worse.
These findings have two practical implications. First, if the next version of the DSM-5 does include pathological personality dimensions, it will be missing the important contributions that people’s thoughts about themselves, i.e. their dysfunctional beliefs, can add to the equation. The second practical implication relates to therapy. If it is true that personality traits themselves are not easily malleable through interventions, particularly short-term ones, then a more productive route would be for psychotherapy to address the dysfunctional thoughts that exacerbate the negative outlooks on the world of people with personality disorders.
To sum up, the McDermut et al. study suggests that the tendency to hold negative expectations and views of oneself and one’s ability seem more likely to develop when people’s personalities already bias them to view the world through anxious and worried perspectives. Although the findings showed some variations depending on which outcome measure was used, in each analysis, neuroticism and its counterpart of low emotional stability emerged as the qualities most likely to predict a view of the self based on doubt and expectations of failure. If dysfunctional beliefs that highly neurotic individuals hold can be addressed through intervention, it is possible that they could be helped to reverse the process and emerge with renewed beliefs in their abilities.
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McDermut, W., Pantoja, G., & Amrami, Y. (2019). Dysfunctional beliefs and personality traits. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy. doi:10.1007/s10942-019-00315-5