Neuroticism describes a person’s tendency to experience negative emotions, including fear, sadness, anxiety, guilt, and shame. While everyone experiences these emotions from time to time, some people are more prone to them than others.
This trait can be thought of as an alarm system. People experience negative emotions as a sign that something is wrong in the world. You may be in danger, so you feel fear. Or you may have done something morally wrong, so you feel guilty. However, not everyone has the same reaction to a given situation. High Neuroticism scorers are more likely to react to a situation with fear, anger, sadness, and the like. Low Neuroticism scorers are more likely to brush off their misfortune and move on.
What Does High Neuroticism Look Like?
High Neuroticism scorers seem to react more strongly to situations and events that have the potential to provoke negative emotions. For instance, they would be more likely to feel threatened by a stranger passing on the street, or to interpret a comment from a colleague as an insult. High Neuroticism people have emotional systems that are on high alert, looking for danger and peril at every turn.
People high in Neuroticism are also more likely to doubt themselves and their abilities. They often feel personally responsible for their own bad luck, and feel a sense of shame when things don’t turn out the way they’d like.
While Neuroticism is not generally thought of as an asset, there are positive points. People high in Neuroticism are unlikely to overlook the perils of life, and tend to be realistic about the problems and limitations in the world. There is also some evidence that Neuroticism can push people to higher levels of achievement, provided they are generally well-adjusted. It seems the fear of failure can provide an important source of motivation.
What Does Low Neuroticism Look Like?
People who are low in Neuroticism are especially resistant to stress and less likely to experience negative emotions like fear, sadness, anxiety, and guilt. While they are not immune to stress, they can withstand more stress than the average person without becoming depressed, anxious, or burned out.
Low Neuroticism scorers are less likely to get divorced or to suffer mental illness. They tend to handle stress well and take unfortunate events in stride. Major stressors like losing a job or getting a divorce are less likely to cause depression or anxiety in people who have low levels of Neuroticism. In general, low Neuroticism scorers report solid self-esteem and a positive outlook on life.
Although low Neuroticism is generally thought of as a positive, people who are very low in this trait may not think much about risks or danger. Because they are generally carefree and relaxed, and not prone to anxiety, people who are extremely low in Neuroticism may be optimistic to the point of delusion. In contrast, people higher in Neuroticism are unlikely to overlook how a situation can go wrong.
People who are low in Neuroticism are not necessarily happier than other people. Positive emotions are correlated with high levels of Extraversion, rather than low Neuroticism. Those who are low in both Neuroticism and Extraversion tend to be somewhat emotionally flat, with few experiences of either negative or positive emotions. People who are high in Extraversion and low in Neuroticism are the lucky ones—lots of positive emotions and few negative ones.