Personality, Intelligence and Stress

We all experience stress, right? But does the kind of person we are have an impact on how we experience that stress?

McCrae & Costa (1987) originally defined 5 personality dimensions on which every individual’s personality can be measured via the NEO-PI-R test: OPENNESS, CONSCIENTIOUSNESS, EXTROVERSION, AGREEABLENESS and NEUROTICISM.

The type of personality we inhabit can influence our approach to stress, for instance, personality influences the situation we choose in the first place, those with elements of neuroticism experience more interpersonal stress (Bolger 1995), those who are more conscientious largely avoid stress exposure (Lee & Bagley, 2005) and make positive health actions (Kern & Friedman 2008) which can help avoid physical stress. Those high in agreeableness, as you might imagine, experience less interpersonal stress (Asendorpf, 1998).

Once stress comes along, our personality then becomes a huge factor in our understanding of the situation. Those high in neuroticism can find stress a negative motivator. That is, neurotic personality types are more likely to experience higher stress intensity (Kaiseler & Polman, 2012), see stress as a threat (Schneider, 2011) and develop stress-health problems (Denollet, 2005). Those who are conscientious, extrovert or agreeable in nature can find stress a positive motivator, i.e. extroverts experience positive emotions as a result of stress (Schneider 2011), those who are agreeable experience lower stress intensity and those who are conscientious experience a higher level of perceived control (Kaiseler & Polman, 2012).

Intelligence also plays a part. Widely understood in terms of general intelligence (Spearman, 1927), intelligence in one element (such as memory) correlates directly with other elements of intelligence (such as judging changes in weight). But general intelligence has little effect on stress management in a positive way (Singh, 2012). When a person’s boss is the source of stress, a stressful relationship may make intelligence actually dysfunctional (Potter & Fiedler). Perhaps, not surprisingly, stress can affect our learning. Stress negatively affects intelligence test results in children (Walker, 1965). During stress, cortisol released is killing off cells in the hippocampus that are essential for new learning (Goleman, 2002), but this is only in particular situations (i.e. abuse not divorce) (Plante & Sykora, 1994). Ironically, just enough stress gives us motivation to learn because if it’s too easy, people aren’t motivated at all
(Kolb & Boyatzis, cited in Goleman, 2002).

There is another, important type of intelligence on which a body of research has been slowly accumulating, and that is emotional intelligence, or the extent to which one understands, manages and influences one’s own and others’ emotions (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Emotional intelligence (EI) too has an effect on how we manage stress. EI IS integral to it, EI has an impact on stress, and conversely, stress has an effect on EI (Ramesar, 2009). Stressed people with high EI can culminate in better performance: Higher levels of emotional intelligence correlated with better social outcomes for children and adults, higher student performance, better social relations at work and in negotiating. All good, however exceptional stress has been seen as detrimental to EI; stress actually decreases your EI (Yung & Gu, 2007).

The way each personality copes with stress differs quite a lot too.

Neurotic coping strategies don’t work, they disengage and withdraw from stressful situation and people around them (Carver, 2010, Connor Smith 2007), they choose strategies which are less effective (Kaiseler, Polman 2012) and disengagement often ends up in disruptive behaviour (Littleton, 2007). Equally they are more likely to choose tragic coping strategies such as alcohol abuse (Malouff 2007) or suicide (Brezo 2006).

However, open, conscientious and extrovert coping strategies do work
because they appraise stress as a challenge rather than a threat which is considered effective (Fenley & Tomatea, 2002) and have coping strategies which are more likely to be effective (Kaiseler & Polman, 2012). When open types appraise stress as a challenge, task performance improves (Schneider 2011) and when extrovert types seek social support in stressful situations (Connor Smith, 2007) it also turns out to be effective.

When it comes to intelligence, low IQ isn’t linked with poor coping strategies (Van Beilen, 2009) but as you might imagine those with high EI have good coping strategies (Erozkan, 2013) and during stressful times, provides both a cheering section and a guide to keep us moving towards our goals in life (Goleman, 2005).

In conclusion, stress is complex but pervasive. Any situation where resources are scarce can cause stress; any culture, gender or race will experience stress. Stress in the short-term can be motivational, however for long periods, it becomes distressful and can cause us harm if we do not appraise it in a positive way. Many factors such as emotional intelligence, personality type and cultural situation affect the way we deal with it and in turn the extent to which we can use it as a motivating factor. One important factor to note is that the direction of influence is not one-way or indeed linear. Personality and cultural groups can influence the type of stressor you experience in the first place. Your physical level of stress can impact on your measured intelligence. The type of stressor and the intensity of you stress can impact your appraisal, and the state of health you find yourself in as a result of stress may well impact on the subsequent stressor situations you choose for yourself. What is clear however is that stress can be motivating, and individuals and society have the power to influence it.

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