Case study

Personality and gender influence how we cope with illness

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Author: Dusanee Kesavayuth and Vasileios Zikos, University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, and Robert E. Rosenman, Washington State University

Date: 28 January 2016

Type of case study: Research

About the research

Gender and personality matter in how people cope with physical and mental illness, according to a study by researchers from the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and Washington State University. The study is part of a wider project exploring personality traits and health satisfaction, and received £2,000 of funding by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

Dusanee Kesavayuth, Robert E. Rosenman and Vasileios Zikos explored how personality and gender influence how individuals cope with illness. Unsurprisingly, illness has a negative effect on an individual's health satisfaction, but the level of coping differs by gender, personality and the presence of multiple physical illnesses.

Professor Robert Rosenman of Washington State University summarised the data on gender differences: "Women are more impacted by illness than men, unless more than one symptom is present…Then men are more impacted than women. And perhaps more importantly, personality affects how women handle becoming sick, while men of all types react the same."

Findings showed that men with multiple physical illnesses are more adversely affected than those with a single physical illness; women are not. The study found that women with high levels of 'agreeableness' or low levels of 'conscientiousness' are less adversely affected by the incidence of mental illness than typical women. On the other hand, there was no statistical evidence that personality affects how men cope with illness.

More generally this study suggests that individual heterogeneity may be significant for understanding how an individual's subjective well-being reacts to illness. Although there may not be simple policy implications, the findings suggest that health professionals should be more aware that patients with certain gender and personality traits may need greater support in coping with their illnesses.

Methodology

The research used data from the British Household Panel Survey, a British nationally-representative longitudinal dataset held by the UK Data Service. The data analysed was collected over the period 1991–2008 and the sample included 2,859 people: 1,471 men and 1,388 women. To test for the presence of illness–personality interaction effects the authors used the sub-sample starting from 2006 until 2008 (waves 16–18) of those respondents who were healthy during 2004–2005 (waves 14–15).

Personality measures are rarely available in micro data used by economists, perhaps due to the lack of appropriate data and the lack of familiarity with the relevant psychometric measures among mainstream economists. The 2005 British Household Panel Survey, however, includes a snapshot of personality. Participants completed a life-satisfaction measure, an illness and disability measure, and socio-economic measure.

The researchers then used fixed effects panel data analysis to establish causal effects of different health conditions on health satisfaction.

To read the report in full:

Kesavayuth, D., Rosenman, R. E., Zikos, V. (2015) ‘Personality and Health Satisfaction’, Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 54, pp. 64-73.

Publications and outputs

The study received attention from 9NEWS Psychologist Dr. Max Wachtel:

One of the interesting findings from the study is that different personality traits help certain women cope better with illness, especially mental illness….It doesn't matter what a man's personality is, according to this research, whatever our personality style is, we men all handle illness about the same. And we handle it slightly less well than women”, 9News, 2 February 2015.

Dusanee Kesavayuth, one of the co-authors, revealed to The Mirror why she thought personality didn't seem to affect how men handled illness:

"I think personality is a big thing in how people handle life…and it really puzzles me why personality doesn’t affect how men suffer mental health problems", The Mirror, 23 February 2015.

The study featured on numerous media outlets, including the following:

Washington State University ‘Sickness and health between men and women’, ScienceDaily, 19 February 2015. Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150219090355.htm

Marie-Therese Walsh (19 February 2015) ‘Could gender differences in coping with multiple symptoms explain ‘man flu’?’, SciGuru Science News. Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from http://www.sciguru.org/newsitem/18485/could-gender-differences-coping-multiple-symptoms-explain-man-flu

Anna Leach (23 February 2015) ‘Women with these personality types dodge some of the bad effects of mental illness’, The Mirror. Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ampp3d/women-personality-types-dodge-bad-5198324

Elizabeth Narins (20 February 2015) ‘Science Confirms What You Already Knew: Men Are Huge Babies When They're Sick’, Cosmopolitan. Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from http://www.cosmopolitan.com/health-fitness/news/a36721/science-confirms-what-you-already-knew-men-are-huge-babies-when-theyre-sick/

MedicalResearch.com Interview with: Dr. Vasileios Zikos (23 February 2015) ‘Study Shows Men and Women Face Illness Differently’. Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from http://medicalresearch.com/author-interviews/study-shows-men-and-women-face-illnesss-differently/11960/

Understanding Society (5 March 2015) ‘How we cope with illness depends on personality and gender’. Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from https://www.understandingsociety.ac.uk/2015/03/05/sickness-and-health-between-men-and-women

Anna Leach (20 February 2015) ‘Why flu could be worse for men: Scientists reveal why men suffer more than women’, The Mirror. Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ampp3d/flu-could-worse-men-scientists-5197863

CTV News (20 February 2015) ‘Women cope with illness better than men, study says’ Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/women-cope-with-illness-better-than-men-study-says-1.2245230

9 News (25 February 2015) ’Study: Women handle illness better than men’. Retrieved online 22 January 2015 from http://www.9news.com/story/news/health/2015/02/25/men-women-handling-illness/23999737/

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