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What Makes You Neurotic?

A new study gets to the root of our anxieties.
Woody Allen. (Photo: Aleš Studený/Shutterstock)

Woody Allen. (Photo: Aleš Studený/Shutterstock)

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 We’re all familiar with the character traits—withdrawn moodiness, impulsivity, and a crippling inability to act—but researchers still don't fully understand neuroticism's cognitive roots.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