Is Your Personality Making You Fat?

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

Given that, all around the world, obesity is – quite literally – a growing problem, researchers have begun to explore the personality traits that are associated with both actual weight status (i.e., underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese) and people’s perceptions of it (which can be very different). To measure your own personality, rate from 1 (disagree strongly) to 7 (agree strongly), the extent to which you are

(a) Extraverted, enthusiastic (i.e., sociable, assertive, talkative, active, NOT reserved, or shy);

(b) Dependable, organized (i.e., hard-working, responsible, self-disciplined, thorough, NOT careless, or impulsive)

(c) Emotionally stable, calm (i.e., relaxed, self-confident, NOT anxious, moody, easily upset, or easily stressed)

Obesity

You can find the average scores for males and females on the website version of this article, but generally a score of 5 or more puts you above average for the relevant trait. Now here’s where the fun starts. A recent US study found that people who score high for extraversion (a) rate themselves as leaner and taller than they actually are, with male extraverts also weighing more than introverts. Conscientiousness (b) is associated with healthier weight, with the most conscientious (top 25%) weighing on average almost 5kg less than the least conscientious (bottom 25%). Participants scoring low on emotional stability (c) tended to overestimate their weight, though – for women only – did actually weigh more than those with higher scores on this trait. Interestingly, these findings held across all of the different ethnic groups included in the study. While some of the links are unsurprising (e.g., conscientious people stick to their diets), some are not quite so easy to explain. Why, for example, do extraverted men tend to weigh more? Is it because they’re always in the pub? If so, perhaps the beer-goggles effect explains why they rate themselves as taller and thinner than they actually are.

A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at bookshop.theguardian.com

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