You don't have to be neurotic, but it helps

August 10, 2007

Academics' tendency to worry can be a strength as well as a weakness, argues Daniel Nettle

I recall one Christmas Day afternoon, when most people were probably snoozing off their lunches, becoming suddenly concerned whether a particular graph in an under-review journal article of mine wouldn't look better plotted with logarithmic scales on the axes. It was no good; the festivities, such as they were, could not continue until I had cracked open the laptop to find out. This, along with many similar instances of "research one - life nil" recounted by colleagues, prompts me to wonder why on earth we all do it. This is not a despairing cri de coeur , but rather a genuine empirical question, since I number the relationship between personality and life choices among my research interests. The more I think about it, the more I am forced to conclude that academics are the most neurotic group of individuals.

I do not mean neurotic in the everyday, pejorative sense. Personality psychologists measure a trait called "neuroticism", which equates in essence to how easily activated are certain brain mechanisms whose function is to detect potential threats in the environment. High scorers are prone to worry and stress, while low scorers are relatively carefree. Most research on neuroticism has focused on its undeniable negative sequels - anxiety disorders, depression, difficult relationships, ill health and so on. However, ramping up the activity of any particular psychological mechanism is likely to bring benefits in certain situations as surely as it brings costs in others. Being a little paranoid, for example, is probably quite useful if people actually are out to get you.

Thus, it is quite plausible that being high in neuroticism will be associated with signature strengths as well as vulnerabilities. Researchers have found that high scorers often strive hard, even in the absence of external reward, for fear of failure, of falling behind or to counteract the hazards they sense ahead. The anxiety that neuroticism potentiates makes us sceptical, cautious and vigilant to detail. It also unleashes the power of rumination. Rumination - going ceaselessly over the small details of a scenario - is a feature of depressive cognition. It is undoubtedly toxic in the wrong circumstances, but it is also the greatest tool of the scholar.

If we academics weren't predisposed to ruminate, we would conclude that it didn't matter much either way in the grand scheme of our lives, and most of the world's greatest research would never be realised. It is the centrality of rumination to what we do that makes it impossible to establish how many hours academics work. Is one working when awake in the middle of the night thinking about structural equation modelling or medieval Padua? The centrality of rumination places a gulf of understanding between us and other social groups, including our students and those who phone our offices between 9am and 5pm expecting to find us there, or see us apparently not working much. What they don't see is that, wherever we are, to paraphrase Marlowe's Mephis-topheles, "this is work, nor am I out of it".

My hunch, then, would be not only that academics as a bunch are relatively high in neuroticism, but that, in academics, higher neuroticism goes with higher productivity. These are hunches I cannot substantiate, although there are some indirect lines of evidence in support of the case. Neuroticism is a negative predictor of job performance for most occupational groups, essentially because of stress-related illness. However, in "professional" occupations (which includes academics), that coefficient is reversed, with neuroticism a weakly positive predictor of career attainment. Among undergraduate students, neuroticism is actually a positive predictor of academic performance, at least for those with the self-discipline to convert their worry into work. Moreover, it has long been known that rates of neurotic disorders are high among writers, a group academics could be considered as belonging to.

If it turned out to be true that academics were generally high in neuroticism, what would follow? For one thing, it would indicate a need to provide good counselling services and medical support for a group likely to be at risk of depression. It would also provide a good example of how a personality liability can, by finding the right niche, be converted to a strength.

It would potentially explain a lot, too, about how universities tend to operate; the interminable discussions in meetings, the prickly relations, resentments, imagined slights and continuous mind-changing. Above all else, it would shed a lot of light on why there are only two possible answers when you ask academics how they are: either (1) "busy" or (2) "stressed".

Daniel Nettle is reader in psychology at Newcastle University. He is author of Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are , to be published by Oxford University Press in September. He has launched a mass personality survey, in association with the British Association, which can be found at  

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