On Who Gets Sick and Why:
The Role of Personality and Stress
Richard J. Contrada
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
It has long been thought that personality and physical health are related. From ancient theories of temperament, through early clinical descriptions of physical disorders, prescientific thinking drew a close association between personality attributes and various somatic disorders. Several threads of systematic theory and research on the topic emerged following the birth of psychology and psychosomatic medicine. Since the middle of the 20th century, interest in personality and health has intensified considerably. It now represents a major focus of psychosocial research concerned with physical disease (Friedman, 1990).
Potential points of contact between the personality and physical health domains are numerous. Each, by itself, is a large and complex area of inquiry. The personality field has undergone considerable expansion and differentiation over the past 50 years. During the latter portion of that time period, there has been tension between two major pursuits: construction of a taxonomy of personality descriptors and development of an understanding of personality process (Cervone, 1991; Mischel & Shoda, 1994; Pervin, 1990). This debate reflects an important component of variation in assumptions and approaches within the personality field. However, there are also wide differences in the views of investigators within each camp, and many issues in personality research that have implications for understanding physical health do not map neatly onto the description/process dichotomy.
As this handbook will attest, the study of physical health and disease is a vast and diverse enterprise. Many physical conditions contribute to morbidity, mortality, and poor quality of life, and any one condition poses several subproblems, including diagnosis, epidemiology, etiology, prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. As a result, the study of physical health and disease is a multidisciplinary endeavor, potentially involving investigators from several health-related fields, including psychologists interested in personality (Schwartz & Weiss, 1977).
This chapter is concerned with one portion of the personality- health interface, namely, that involving personality attributes that are thought to have health-damaging consequences because they increase psychological stress or exacerbate its effects. Like personality, stress has long been suspected of contributing to physical health problems. Moreover, the personality and stress constructs complement one another in that each provides a means of explaining and elaborating the other's role in shaping human adaptation. The concept of stress points to social and environmental factors outside the person that influence psychological well- being and physical health, and to psychological and physiological processes that mediate those effects. The study of personality points to dispositions within the person that can account for individual differences in responses to a stressor, and to attributes and processes that explain temporal and cross-situational consistency in stress-related response patterns. Thus, research that draws from both the personality and stress domains is more likely to provide a comprehensive understanding of psychosocial influences