Impulsive People Are More Likely to Be Obese

Personality affects many aspects of health. This is especially true of personality traits linked to lifestyle. This study looked at the effects of personality traits on individuals’ weight fluxuations over a 50 year period. Impulsiveness turns out to be directly associated with weight gain. People who scored in the top 10 percent on the impulsiveness scale weighed an average of 24.5 pounds more than less impulsive individuals.

Obesity affects a substantial portion of the world’s population. Unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles are the primary contributors to this menace. Obesity raises the risk of heart disease, type II diabetes, cancers and arthritis, significantly shortening lifespan. Since body weight is an indicator of a person’s lifestyle and behavior, personality traits may be a factor in the incidence of obesity. Food availability, quantity and quality are other factors that influence obesity. This study evaluated the records of a group of individuals spanning 50 years, to assess their personality traits and explore their influence on obesity and weight change throughout their adult lives.

* Data on 1,988 individuals, half female, were drawn from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which was started in 1958 by the National Institute of Aging. African-Americans consituted 22 percent of the population, whites 71 percent and other ethnicities seven percent. Most of the participants had around 16 years of education.
* At the beginning of the study, the participants’ weight, height and other measurements, including hip and waist circumference and skin fold thickness, had been recorded. After 50 years, 14,531 measurements were available for analysis.
*  The personality traits of extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, impulsivity and neuroticism were assessed using a test called the Revised NEO Personality Inventory.

Key findings
* People with higher levels of impulsivity tended to be heavier, that is, more obese and overweight.
* Those who scored higher in conscientiousness were leaner and had normal weight.
* A combination of high neuroticism and low conscientiousness led to greater weight fluctuations throughout adult life. Those who scored low on agreeableness were heavier, with higher body mass indexes.
* Weight did not appear to affect personality traits.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The participants were all well-educated so the results cannot be generalized to less educated populations. The use of a large number of statistical tests to evaluate the data increases the chance that some statistical errors could creep into the results. Furthermore, the study did not assess the effects of a deliberate change in weight, altered through physical exercise, on the personality of the individuals.

This is the first attempt to follow individuals over five decades of their adult lives to assess the interplay of personality traits, weight gain and obesity. The study found that some of the “cognitive, emotional and behavioral patterns associated with personality traits”, like impulsivity and low agreeableness, are linked to weight gain and difficulties in weight management. This may be because impulsive individuals find it difficult to practice restraint in food intake and practice regular physical activity.

For More Information:
Personality and Obesity across the Adult Life Span
Publication Journal: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, July 2011
By Angelina R. Sutin; Luigi Ferrucci, et al., National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health, Bayview Boulevard, Baltimore, MD

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