Psychology is a large and complex topic. If you ever study it at a university, then much of your time is going to be devoted to learning how to design a scientific experiment and work with data. You’ll look at the development of the infant brain, various psychological disorders and the history of the field. You’ll even learn in depth neuroscience and ponder the philosophical implications of what you discover.
But from all this, just a few topics become very popular. A few ideas from psychology have made it into the mainstream popular culture and have become a part of the public lexicon. Many of these come from Freud’s psychodynamic approach to psychology: terms like ‘repression’ and ‘Oedipus complex’ get thrown around a lot for instance.
Another popular idea is the notion of the type A vs type B personalities. This is the theory that our personalities can be largely broken down into two categories. The type A personality traits usually lend to someone who is very tightly strung, perhaps very competitive and maybe with an obsessive compulsive tendency. Meanwhile, the type B personality traits usually has someone who is a little more withdrawn and laid back, a little more creative and reflective and generally more relaxed.
Originally, the idea of the type A vs type B personality theory was described in the 1950s by a pair of cardiologists. They were Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman. The duo looked at personality types and in particular were looking for the implications that personality type had for general health and heart health.
In one study looking at participants aged 33-59, they discovered that certain personality traits appeared to be related to an increased likelihood of high blood pressure, stress and heart disease. Of course, these were the type A personality traits – so bad luck if you’re someone that your friends would describe as type A! The first study was heavily criticized for failing to look at the role of confounding factors such as diet and exercise but a follow up trial accounted for these factors and found the correlation still existed.
The concept quickly gained popularity and entered the mainstream. Largely this popularity is likely thanks to the relative simplicity, which makes it easy to understand and consider.
But despite its popularity, many psychologists continue to criticize the theory and the research. In particular, there is evidence that Friedman and co got their funding from tobacco companies.
During the 1950s, tobacco companies were coming under increasing scrutiny as links were being discovered between cigarettes and heart disease. Thus, manufacturers were keen to try and find evidence to disprove this idea.
Type A vs type B personality theory appeared to do just that by introducing a new ‘confounding variable’ – an explanation as to why smokers might be more likely to get heart disease that did not place the blame on the cigarettes. The notion is that type A personality traits make someone more of a ‘go-getter’. That person is more likely to smoke and because they’re more likely to be highly strung and very stressed, they’re also more likely to suffer from a heart attack.
Whatever the initial motivation for the studies, the question to ask is whether or not the theory is useful.
One thing to keep in mind is that the potentially biased reasoning for conducting the studies does not alone discredit the findings. What’s more, is that some follow up studies have managed to find similar results with no connection to the tobacco industry.
And it stands to reason that individuals who are more prone to stress – who have more type A personality traits – would be more likely to suffer from heart disease. One obvious reason is simply hypertension. When you are stressed, you trigger the fight or flight response, which sees the sympathetic nervous system trigger the release of neurotransmitters and hormones such as adrenaline (norepinephrine), dopamine, cortisol and others. These increase the heart-rate while also thickening the blood (increasing viscosity) and contracting the blood vessels. The idea is that this will help the blood to get around the body more quickly, helping us to be more efficient at responding to challengers. The problem is that this also happens to increase blood pressure and over extended periods, this can lead to heart problems.
Another relationship has to do with the presence of magnesium. Type A personalities that experience more stress also tend to show more intracellular loss of magnesium, which can lead to cardiovascular problems.
So, it’s true that measures of personality type could help us to better predict the likelihood of heart disease. And moreover, they could help us to find new approaches to treatment and prevention. Is it useful as an insightful measure of personality alone? Perhaps it is too broad a category to provide any real value in that regard. There are many different reasons that a person might be more prone to stress and or more ‘highly strung’ and knowing this alone might not provide a particularly detailed picture of their character.
It is possible that a type A personality could be connected to levels of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter linked with motivated behavior and those high in dopamine will often find themselves feeling a certain ‘urgency’ to complete different tasks and get work done. Likewise, type A personality traits might be linked with high levels of norepinephrine or cortisol. And is this the result of genetics or experience? At this point, we just don’t know.
But finding out which type best describes you is still a useful and interesting endeavor and if nothing else, it might serve as a reminder that it is unhealthy to worry too much or to work too hard.
For your own piece of mind, not to mention your heart health, it pays to sometimes relax, let it go and just try to remain calm. If you notice a lot of type A personality traits in yourself, then perhaps you should look into trying a little CBT as a way to find peace and calm?